It is often said that the lower the stakes, the more vicious the politics. And so it might be said of the just-concluded campaign for political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, which, given the exalted status of the Dalai Lama, was a bit like voting for the vice president to a sitting president.
The final round in the second election for a leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, as the exiled Tibetan government is known, concluded last weekend, though the results will not be known until April. Still, the proceedings showed just how hard it is to build a democracy under the leadership of a man who, though 80 years old, semiretired and dedicated to democratic principles, is revered as a Godlike figure by Tibetans.
Largely absent from the discussion in the campaign was the question of how to win freedom for the nearly six million Tibetans living in China, an issue that has consumed the exiled Tibetan community for almost six decades. It is viewed as disrespectful to the man the Tibetans call His Holiness to question the “middle way” strategy that he set in motion nearly 30 years ago, in which he softened his demand for independence, instead seeking self-governance within the Chinese government. It has been an effort to draw China into a dialogue that by most accounts has failed.
Instead, the election devolved into mudslinging and sycophancy. The hot topics were the audacity of the current political leader, Lobsang Sangay, who is running for re-election, to have his portrait displayed in the Washington office, and the drinking habits of his opponent, Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the exiled parliament.
The campaigns “have been tearing each other apart, harping on petty, trivial issues,” said Dhardon Sharling, 34, a member of the parliament, “when all we should be talking about is how we will resolve Tibetan’s issues, how we’ll take the Sino-Tibetan dialogue forward.”
Mr. Sangay, 48, was on the defensive from the start of his re-election campaign, forced to answer at every stop why he had put his own portrait on the wall of the group’s new Washington office instead of a picture of the Dalai Lama. It did him little good, it seemed, to explain that his portrait had been hung in the basement, and that there were 13 other pictures of the Dalai Lama in the Washington office.
The current Dalai Lama, who is part of the lineage of spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people that dates back to the 14th century, has been championing the cause of democracy for his people since he fled to India in 1959 after China claimed Tibet and began a campaign to repress its religion and culture. (He has refrained from commenting in this campaign, and few people know how closely he was following the dialogue on the elections. His secretaries did not respond to requests for interviews.)
He set up his residence and an exiled government outside of Dharamsala, in northern India. And as he promoted the cause of freedom for the people he had left behind, he gradually relinquished his own political authority. An exiled parliament was set up, a cabinet, and finally, in 2011, the job of an elected political leader, known as the sikyong, a role similar to prime minister.
Even as he gave up his political role, the Dalai Lama retained his position as the spiritual and cultural leader of the Tibetan people. A democratic election for a people without a country is a complicated affair, with voting in more than 40 locations in India, and dozens more around the globe. Registered voters number about 88,000, fewer than in most mayoral elections in the United States.
Mr. Sangay, in an interview in his Dharamsala office, where a life-size picture of the Dalai Lama hangs behind his desk, lamented the endless controversy over the portraits in Washington. “It’s the number one question I’m asked, the number one issue I clarify,” Mr. Sangay said.
In an interview, Mr. Tsering, 50, criticized Mr. Sangay for allowing his own portrait to be displayed, saying his opponent had been “brought up in a very Western style,” in which “image is very important.”
Mr. Tsering blamed his opponent’s supporters for circulating a picture of him at a book party years ago, drinking with friends. “They made it seem like I am always drinking, creating the impression I have a problem,” he said. Someone demanded at a campaign event that he pledge to give up alcohol if elected political leader, which he refused to do, he said, because he does not have a drinking problem.
Even as the free-for-all ensued in the election, a 16-year-old killed himself in early March by settling himself on fire in Dehradun, India, an eight-hour drive from Dharamsala, a reminder of the deep frustration in the exiled community over the lack of progress in winning any measure of freedom in Tibet. One hundred and forty-four Tibetans have killed themselves in this way during the past 20 years.
Despite the absence of their candidates in the election final, there is a vocal minority of voters who refuse to support the middle way strategy, favoring a fight for full independence.
Lukar Jam Atsok, 44, a writer who was imprisoned in China before escaping into India years ago, ran in the preliminary contest for political leader, arguing that the Dalai Lama could be considered a traitor for having given up full independence for Tibet in his negotiations with the Chinese.
“If a person does not believe in independence, whether he’s my father or the Dalai Lama, I do not agree with that person,” he said in Tibetan in an interview. “I am not saying the Dalai Lama is a traitor, but if you consider the political history, then he is one.”
But far from promoting a dialogue, Mr. Atsok’s comments prompted his public condemnation from Mr. Sangay and Mr. Tsering, and he was removed from the final vote. The election commission announced the day after the preliminary ballot that only the top two candidates would remain in the final election, eliminating Mr. Atsok. Sonam Choephel Shosur, the chief election commissioner, said that the only concern was to make the final a two-way runoff, and that the commission had decided on that before the votes were counted in the preliminary round.
Ms. Sharling, the lawmaker, said regardless of the motivation, the election commission’s behavior “made the election smell foul.” She said that Mr. Atsok had gone too far in his criticism of the Dalai Lama, but that pro-independence voices needed to be heard.
“This is binary thinking and is wrong,” said Ms. Sharling. “I fight against it and I get labeled anti-Dalai Lama.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 24, 2016, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Worldly Disputes Cloud Tibetan Exiles’ Election. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe