Corruption Issues Loom Large as Mongolia Prepares to Vote

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Corruption Issues Loom Large as Mongolia Prepares to Vote

The ruling MPP has the advantage in polling, but domestic grievances could help opposition parties gain seats.

Corruption Issues Loom Large as Mongolia Prepares to Vote

A protester waves a Mongolian national flag as protesters gather on the steps of the State Palace in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia on Dec. 5, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Nikolskiy

Mongolians will head to the polls in less than a month to vote for a new parliament. For many voters, the election is an opportunity to select the party they think is best suited to delivering on promises of sharing mining wealth and cracking down on entrenched corruption. 

The ruling center-left Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) looks to extend eight years of uninterrupted rule. The current legislature is dominated by the party, with its MPs occupying 61 of the 76 seats in the Great Khural. President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, in office since 2021, is also a member of the MPP.

Opposition parties say that the corruption scandals that have rocked the country in recent years are cause for change.

All parties will have a chance to make their case to voters before the June 28 vote, which is typically preceded by a short but raucous campaign period when candidates crisscross the country to woo voters in towns and on the open steppes, where nomadic people still travel by horseback to polling places. 

This year’s election promises to be grander in scale compared to past polls, as the number of seats in the parliament has increased from 76 to 126. For smaller parties, that means more opportunities to gain seats and increase their profile. But even with more seats available, the ruling MPP remains deeply entrenched across the country.

The government, led by Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, boosted its profile ahead of the vote by increasing pensions and social welfare allowances. In the capital, leaders have touted plans to build a metro to cross the length of the city, appealing to voters tired of the city’s congestion.

In the countryside, officials are offering herders low interest loans to support themselves after a harsh winter that killed nearly 7 million head of livestock. Last month authorities promised more than $600 million will be spent over the next three years to support herders. 

These plans have helped the MPP – self-described social democrats – secure a lead in most polls, and the party is favored to extend uninterrupted rule it has held since 2016. 

Polling conducted in April by the Ulaanbaatar-based consultancy MEC showed 22 percent of respondents favor the MPP compared to 17 percent for the Democratic Party (DP), Mongolia’s biggest opposition party. The HUN Party has 10 percent support followed by the National Coalition with 6 percent. 

But some say the outcome remains unpredictable, and the MPP’s firm grip on power is vulnerable. 

Amar Adiya, publisher of the online newsletter Mongolia Weekly, said that Ulaanbaatar residents are weary of the poor air quality, horrendous traffic, and lack of affordable housing in the capital. In the countryside, some herders are blaming the government for the loss of their animals. The domestic grievances could help opposition parties gain seats.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that the MPP will win; there is still a lot of frustration among voters,” said Amar. “Not everyone is happy with the government.”

A coalition with smaller parties is possible if the MPP cannot win enough seats to rule on its own, said Amar. A grand coalition with the DP is also possible. 

The MPP, previously known as the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, ruled Mongolia uncontested during the country’s communist era, from 1921 to 1990. Since 1990, power has oscillated between the MPP and the DP.

Mongolia’s fluid and mostly peaceful changes of power in the past three decades are rare in a region known for its autocracies. Surrounded by Russia and China, elections here are closely watched by Western nations eager to see if Mongolia can maintain its independence and democratic values.  

In the 1990s the MPP was made up primarily of former communist party members, but in more recent decades it has tried to shed its autocratic past by embracing young, Western-educated leaders. 

“The MPP has been better at this generational turnover, even if their policies don’t seem refreshed,” said Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert and professor at the University of British Columbia.

The largest opposition group, the DP, was once considered the party of reform, boasting as leaders a slew of Western-educated young men and women. But other parties have caught up, fielding their own cadre of elite reformers, many of whom also went overseas for college degrees. 

“I’ve personally come to the conclusion that the MPP’s main strategy over the years has been to assimilate the DP and promote a [grand coalition] in order to weaken the DP’s public support,” said party member Jargalan Batbayar. “We’ve played into some of their tactics, and now our main challenge is to differentiate ourselves from the MPP.” 

Jargalan, a Columbia University graduate, said that her party still has appeal among progressives. Economic policies pushed by the DP are more liberal, she added.

“The DP is going back to the basics, we are focusing on the economy – lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government. Economic growth needs to be spearheaded by the private sector,” she said.  

Mongolia’s surprisingly buoyant economy is expected to feature prominently in the election. The MPP is trying to capitalize on the positive economic data, notably the 7 percent growth it posted last year, mostly on the back of strong coal sales.

But graft will also be a key talking point following several high profile corruption trials, including revelations of a “coal mafia” run by high ranking MPP officials. In another case, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are trying to confiscate two Manhattan apartments bought by a former prime minister, allegedly with stolen mining revenue.

The MPP says it has rooted out corrupt officials involved with scandals involving coal exports, education funds, and loans from the Development Bank of Mongolia (DBM). 

Those cases mostly saw the whistle being blown “by the government itself,” said Batnairamdal Otgonshar, secretary of the MPP, who said that it was committed to fighting corruption.

But smaller parties say more needs to be done to eliminate graft. 

“All these coal hearings or DBM hearings, none of the big kahunas went to jail. Some got a slap on the wrist or a fine,” said Munkhdul Badral Bontoi, a market analyst and an elected politician with the HUN Party, which holds one seat in the parliament. “That was a big disappointment.”

Nomtoibayar Nyamtashir, the head of the National Coalition and former minister, is a candidate who has spent time behind bars for abuse of power. Polling suggests he is one of the country’s most popular politicians. His previous conviction had made him ineligible to run for office in this election until a court in Ulaanbaatar overturned the General Election Committee’s decision to bar his candidacy.

Mongolia ranks 121st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index, and its score has steadily declined over the past decade.

Suren Bat-Tur, a produce reseller in the capital, said graft is a part of the country’s political and social fabric. He imagines the problem will only grow worse when the parliament expands after the election. 

“Before it was 76 people who were corrupt, but now it will be 126 people,” he said. 

The public perception that corruption is entrenched has weighed on national morale and sent many young Mongolians overseas in search of better opportunities. Others are concerned about an unwinding of democratic freedoms. 

“Citizens are losing lots of freedoms they used to have in 2020 and before. The voters now want to have their freedom back,” said Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, head of the Civic Unity Party, one of more than two dozen parties competing in the election.

Student-led protests demanding change in 2022 pushed government reforms, including more transparency in the coal trade. Now instead of coal being sold at the mine gate, the sales are overseen by the Mongolian Stock Exchange. That has helped the economy, but the MPP knows a large portion of society hasn’t benefited from the mining profits.  

“The growth is there, now we want to make sure the growth enters every household,” said Batnairamdal of the MPP.

Batnairamdal, 39, said that addressing priority issues also requires grooming more young people to join the MPP’s ranks and get involved in politics. That kind of thinking has helped the MPP stay relevant and appears to be the formula moving ahead. 

“In order to attract young people’s vote I think parties have to nominate young people, young candidates,” Batnairamdal said. “In order to ask for their votes you have to bring candidates they want.” 

No matter which party wins, radical shifts from Mongolia’s current path aren’t likely, said Dierkes. The prevailing approach of balancing interests between Russia, China, and so-called “third neighbors” (including the U.S. and Japan) will continue. And Ulaanbaatar’s pursuit of foreign investment will also remain a priority. 

“Policies will repeat,” said Dierkes. “Things haven’t changed much after past elections, even when power changed hands, in part because there isn’t that great a policy difference between the two [main] parties.”

Bat-Tur said he plans to cast his ballot for the MPP, mainly because he doesn’t trust the opposition and is fed up with internal squabbles that have embroiled the Democratic Party. 

But he doesn’t think the MPP will do much for him personally. He’s worried about higher taxes and a weakening tugrik that makes imports more expensive. Mostly he’s concerned that corruption will continue its unending spiral. 

“After the election, corruption won’t stop,” he said.