On June 9, Mongolia will elect its next president. It’s been a messy campaign season, with all sides claiming that the fate of Mongolia’s democracy is at stake in the upcoming vote. For a rundown of the state of the race, and the larger issues at play, The Diplomat spoke to Bolor Lkhaajav, a book editor at The Mongolia Society, Indiana University Bloomington, and a frequent commentator on Mongolia’s foreign policy and politics. Bolor is also a co-host of the “77 Nation” podcast based in Washington, D.C.
It’s been an especially contentious campaign season, with the MPP passing laws banning the incumbent president from running, and President Battulga attempting to disband the MPP. Can you walk us through the major developments of the past few months?
Since its peaceful democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolia has successfully held seven presidential elections to elect five different presidents* in a multi-party system. This year’s presidential election, to be hold on June 9, 2021 has been contentious for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) holding a majority of seats in the parliament, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the government’s response, and the weakening of major opposition party, the Democratic Party. It is especially contentious because the opposition parties and observers fear one-party rule in Mongolia, resulting in hunger strikes to warn against that path.
When the DP lost in a landslide to the MPP in 2016 – retaining only nine out of 76 seats in the parliament (Great Ikh Khural) – the battle for the office of the president began for both the DP and MPP. For the DP, the ambition for the office of the president was to hold some high-level power in the government, since they only hold nine seats in the parliament. For the MPP, the goal was to hold the power of all three branches of the government – the parliament, the office of the president, and the cabinet.
Following its landslide victory in the parliamentary election, the MPP has hoped for the office of the president. One week before Mongolians last headed to the presidential polls, on May 9, 2017 an audio recording was released to the public. It appeared to be a recording of a 90-minute conversation involving the chairman of the parliament, Enkhbold Miyegombyn, who was also the MPP’s 2017 presidential candidate. The audio, allegedly recorded in 2014, preceded Mongolia’s parliamentary elections of June 2016. The recording became famous for its discussion of the MPP’s “60 million tugrik” ($20 million) deal to take bribes to shuffle government positions as part of a plan to empower its party grip. The political atmosphere right before the 2017 presidential election was almost at a boiling point.
When MPP lost the presidential election to DP candidate Battulga Khaltmaa, they pursued an amendment to the constitution. The president has called for a national referendum, and used his veto power. But his actions were ignored by the MPP majority parliament. In 2019, the parliament approved the third discussion of the draft amendments to the Constitution of Mongolia, under which the newly elected president will serve a single, six-year term. Previous presidents all have served two terms, except Enkhbayar Nambar and, now, Battulga.
This is not to say that these legislative decisions are only directed toward banning former president Enkhbayar and Battulga from running, however. Amendments to the constitution, Mongolia’s balance of power, the semi-presidential system, and the question of how much power should a president have – all of these topics have been part of an ongoing political discussion in the Mongolian political arena for the past decades.
It is important too that the election law requires the president-elect to suspend their party membership in order to fully serve the people and country. The weakening of the DP since the 2016 parliamentary election might have indirectly pressured the incumbent president to stay in power as president.
Moreover, legal studies scholars have been extremely unhappy with the Constitutional Court overriding its power to micromanage the election system. For example, advisors to the president Dr. Enkhbaigali Byambasuren and Dr. Gunbileg Boldbaatar emphasized that “Restricting the right to elect and be elected means restricting the rights of political parties to nominate and the rights of all supporters, the rights of all the people to elect their President. The people’s right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution and it should not be restricted. The Constitution cannot be interpreted for political purposes.”
As for former president Enkhbayar, who was jailed for abuse of power and corruption in 2012, he has lost the support of the majority of the people. Since being released from jail, he has been seeking office and has been rejected by the General Election Committee. The more he tries to be in political life again, the more people are suspicious.
The family-feud-like political game between the MPP and DP forced Enkhbat Dangaasuren to run for office from the Mongolian Labor Party (MLP). In his latest interview, Enkhbat stated that he is running for president not because of political ambition or career; he is running for office because he is different from the other candidates who have been in politics for too long and have political life or party affiliations to lose.
Mongolian youths played a key role in the country’s transition to democracy. What role are young Mongolians playing in the current political atmosphere?
A new nationwide poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) “surveyed Mongolians between the ages of 18 and 40, capturing youth perspectives prior to the June 2020 parliamentary elections and amid the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.” According to this latest research, “94 percent of Mongolian youth believe it is important that all members of the country’s adult population are included in political decision-making. Ninety-four percent of Mongolian youth believe it is important that all members of the country’s adult population are included in political decision-making. More specifically, 97 percent of Mongolian youth find the inclusion of young adults important, and 91 percent think the inclusion of women and people with disabilities is crucial as well.”
Unemployment was by far the biggest concern of Mongolian youth, with 54 percent of those surveyed listing it as one of the three most important problems facing Mongolia today. Corruption was the second-most common response (22 percent of respondents), followed education (18 percent) and poverty (18 percent).
IRI’s survey also found that “Young Mongolians have very little confidence in political parties, with 60 percent expressing either a ‘very’ (10 percent) or ‘somewhat’ (50 percent) negative opinion of the parties.” But their disillusionment is not limited to the political parties: “More than half hold a ‘very’ (11 percent) or ‘somewhat’ (40 percent) negative opinion of courts, and 56 percent have either a ‘very’ (9 percent) or ‘somewhat’ (47 percent) negative view of the parliament.” Over half of respondents also rated the national government as performing “very” or “somewhat” poorly in providing economic opportunity, jobs, and opportunities for citizen engagements in politics.
Yet IRI noted that “Despite the current obstacles facing the country, the poll found overwhelming support among Mongolian youth for maintaining a democratic system (76 percent) – a promising sign for Mongolia’s future.”
Moreover, in the past two decades, Mongolians abroad have been increasingly active in Mongolia’s political life. As of 2020, there are approximately 150,000 Mongolians studying and living abroad. With modern technology and free flow of information, these people are ever connected to Mongolia. There has been an increase in petitions submitted by Mongolian abroad on a number of pressing issues such as battling air pollution, corruption, offshore accounts, and most recently, the Chinese government’s crackdown on Mongolian language in the Inner Mongolian school system.
What does the election of 2021 tell us about the health of democracy in Mongolia? What markers should we watch for in the last week of the campaign, and on poll day itself?
In recent years, Mongolia’s high politics, corruption, and bribery cases have dampened many people’s trust in the government and the law enforcement. Just look at the IRI poll above. We are talking about a two-party dominated political system that has been scratching each other’s back since 1990. Between 2014 and 2016, Mongolia experienced large numbers of social mobilization both at home and abroad, protesting against poor air quality, mining on sacred land in Noyon-Uul, and offshore accounts that involved high-level government officials — some are still in office. Earlier this year, the public outrage over a mistreatment of a hospital patient resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Khurelskh Ukhnaa. Whether he resigned too easily in order to run for president is another argument. However, in a recent podcast talk, current Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai stated, “The people, the public are always watching and they are no fools. If the people don’t want you, you will not be elected.”
The emergence of a third-party option, such as the presidential candidate Enkhbat Davaasuren is welcome amongst the youth. There has been significant social media support for Enkhbat, especially among Mongolians abroad and Mongolian youths in Mongolia. The former CEO and founder of Datacom, a computer engineer, and a scholar, Enkhbat is favored mainly because the people do not want cronies from the MPP and DP, especially not after Khurelsukh resigned during a tough time for his own personal political gain. The DP candidate, Erdene Sodnomzundui, is running under the slogan of “Mongolia without dictatorship,” clearly fearing one-party dominance in Mongolia if he or Enkhbat loses the June 9th presidential election.
Whether it’s a parliamentary election or presidential election, the people are challenging those in power for better governance, a citizen-centered judicial system, human rights, and economic opportunities. Educated youth are increasingly frustrated with unemployment. All these issues need some support from the government. The government, by using democratic practices, must provide more opportunities.
Mongolia will be facing a major energy crisis in the next decade. As developed and developing countries move to renewable energy and away from coal-based energy, Mongolia’s economy must seek an alternative source. Mongolian politicians, policymakers, and its next president must avoid succumbing to the small-time domestic political game and really focus on the bigger issues. The country needs to move on in a healthy direction. In this pursuit, democracy, multi-party governance, a president that is elected by the people, and the participation of youths are the most important components.
*A previous version of this article misstated the number of presidential elections and misspelled the name of Enkhbat Dangaasuren.