DHARAMSALA, India Tibetan exiles elected a Harvard law scholar as their political leader, who is likely to bring in a more radical government-in-exile to challenge China after the Dalai Lama moved to relinquish his political role.
The new prime minister, the 42-year old Lobsang Sangay, polled 27,051 votes, 55 percent of the total electorate, to beat two other secular candidates.
"The Election Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has declared Dr Lobsang Sangay as the third kalon tripa," Chief Election Commissioner Jampal Thosang told a news conference, using the Tibetan title for the prime minister.
The handover of power will give the prime minister's role greater clout as the region seeks autonomy from China and could stave off a possible crisis of leadership in the event of the Dalai Lama's death.
Sangay has earlier hinted he could move beyond the Dalai Lama's "middle way" policy of negotiating for autonomy for Tibet from China. As a student in New Delhi, he was a leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which demands complete independence.
Born in a refugee settlement in India in 1968, Sangay won a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard where he earned a doctorate in law. As a senior research fellow at the university, he has engaged with Chinese scholars and has twice organised meetings between them and the Dalai Lama.
Sangay was in the United States when the results were announced. As prime minister he will have to move to the north Indian town of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile that was formed in 1959 after the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
After the result was announced, a beaming supporter went around the conference room distributing candies among the Tibetan, Indian and western journalists present there.
The Dalai Lama in March has said he would relinquish the four-century old tradition of power in favor of a leader popularly elected by the Tibetan diaspora. He will continue as a spiritual leader to his people who revere him as an incarnation of the Buddhist deity of compassion.
By giving up his political powers, the 75-year old Dalai Lama has made it more difficult for China to influence the course of the independence movement after his death, analysts say.
"The Dalai Lama was very happy ... as he thought people took very active part in the election process," an official in the central Tibetan administration told Reuters.
The Chinese government says it has to approve all reincarnations of living Buddhas, or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. It also says China has to sign off on the choosing of the next Dalai Lama.
Tibetans fear that China will use the thorny issue of the Dalai Lama's succession to split the movement, with one new Lama named by the exiles and one by China after his death.
China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist responsible for stirring unrest in Tibet, had denounced his move as a "trick".
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)