Tibetans in exile have re-elected a Harvard-educated lawyer as their political leader to spearhead a campaign to press China to grant Tibet autonomy, a Tibetan government-in-exile said on Wednesday.

Lobsang Sangay, who has led the 150,000-odd Tibetan diaspora since 2011 when the Dalai Lama relinquished his political power, won 57 percent of the almost 60,000 votes cast, the electoral commission announced in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, where the administration is based.

The Dalai Lama, 81, has sought to build a democratic system of government for exiled Tibetans that is strong enough to hold the community together and negotiate with China after his death.

Question marks over what happens when the spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Laureate dies, amid competing assertions over who should succeed him, have reinforced Tibetans' need for a leader endowed with democratic legitimacy.

Tibetan Buddhism holds that the soul of a senior lama is reincarnated in the body of a child after he dies. China says it must sign off on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.

"I voted for him because of his educated background," said Choezin, a 53-year-old crimson-robed monk who fled Tibet in 1985 to settle in Dharamsala.

"His Holiness wants somebody who can continue the work he has done. He has said Sangay is the right man."

Sangay will head the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) for five years. No country recognizes the CTA and China has declined to talk to it.

Tibetans accuse Chinese authorities of eroding their deeply Buddhist culture by clamping down on religious practice and flooding the region with ethnic Han Chinese.

China says it has brought development to what was a backward region and it accuses the Dalai Lama of being a "splittist" seeking independence.

The election campaign was marked by bitter rivalry between candidates, which earned rebukes from the Dalai Lama.

Sangay, like the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans, backs the so-called middle way demand for autonomy within China rather than independence. But during his first term he failed to make headway in convincing the Chinese to talk.

Formal negotiations between the Chinese and representatives of the Dalai Lama broke down in 2010, and the stalemate since then has cast a pall over Tibetans in exile.

Beijing's growing economic might has slowly relegated the Tibetan cause from the international stage. The Dalai Lama has in recent years been denied an audience with several world leaders including the Pope.