Mongolian elections raise fears of one-party rule
In a presidential election on June 9, Mongolian voters gave a landslide victory to former Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party, or MPP. Building on a strong campaign in which he vowed to firmly tackle the country’s endemic corruption, empower its youth and fairly distribute its rich natural resources, Khurelsukh won 67% of the vote, the highest share of the vote since Mongolia’s democratic transition in 1990. He was sworn in last Friday and will be the first president to serve a single six-year term under a 2019 constitutional amendment, passed by the MPP-dominated parliament, which abolished the previous system of four-year renewable presidential terms. With the MPP also in control of the Cabinet, Khurelsukh’s victory consolidated the party’s control over the three main levers of political power in Mongolia.
Khurelsukh’s predecessor, Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the main opposition Democratic Party, or DP, was ineligible for re-election due to the 2019 constitutional amendment and recent changes to Mongolia’s electoral law. Many opposition figures and commentators have warned against the MPP’s efforts to consolidate power, saying the fate of Mongolia’s democracy hangs in the balance in this election. In reality, however, the DP’s own weaknesses and divisions were a major factor in its defeat. The party’s candidate, Sodnomzunduiin Erdene, came third with a dismal 6%. No. 2, with 20%, was internet entrepreneur Dangaasurengiin Enkhbat, who ran under the banner of the relatively new National Labor Party.
In some ways, these findings suggest an erosion of the traditional two-party system that has prevailed for much of the past three decades, in which the MPP and DP dominated the political landscape. However, this year’s election also saw nearly 6% of voters cast a blank or spoiled ballot, more than in any previous Mongolian presidential election, suggesting that a significant number of voters were unhappy with their choices.
Turnout also fell to an all-time low of 59%, perhaps unsurprising given the unusual political environment surrounding the poll. Pandemic-related restrictions have limited candidates’ campaign activities, and even the presidential debate, which was scheduled to air the day before Election Day, had to be canceled at the last minute after Enkhbat was hospitalized with COVID- 19. The voters therefore did not have the opportunity to hear all the candidates directly about their political proposals. Popular dissatisfaction with the canceled debate led Enkhbat and Erdene to participate in informal question-and-answer sessions with voters on the audio-based social networking app Clubhouse. Members of the MPP party and their supporters also created a room on the app, although Khurelsukh did not participate.
While headlines after the election were dominated by Khurelsukh’s landslide victory, the poll was also notable for highlighting the weakness of the DP, which has its roots in Mongolia’s 1990 democratic revolution but has recently been hobbled by persistent internal disputes and divisions. In the 2016 legislative elections, the DP won only 9 of the 76 seats in the unicameral legislature, while the MPP took 65. The DP has been unable to reverse its decline since then, haemorrhaging members and supporters.
A period of unified control by a single party may actually prove salutary for Mongolia, tempering the political intrigue and infighting that has long plagued the country.
Learning from the mistakes of the DP, the MPP-led government pursued policies that created more opportunities for young workers to hold positions in government and within the ranks of the party. Khurelsukh resigned as prime minister in January, reportedly in response to protests over the apparent mistreatment by health workers of a COVID-19 patient who had just given birth, although many observers believe he wanted to. simply laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign. Nevertheless, the move was seen by many MPP members as a positive step who paved the way for a young generation of leaders. Opposition parties criticized his failure to resolve the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, but judging by Khurelsukh’s margin of victory, voters favored him more than other politicians.
At the same time, it is clear that a growing number of voters are fed up with the lingering political infighting and rampant corruption that has characterized Mongolia’s political arena under the traditional two-party system. This sentiment contributed to a surprisingly strong performance for Enkhbat’s external bid, which garnered particularly high support from young people and foreign voters. According to the main Mongolian news site Ikon.mn, nearly three-quarters of Mongolians registered to vote from outside Mongolia voted for Enkhbat. Although he ultimately did not achieve victory, his campaign must be seen as a very significant challenge to the two-party system that has entrenched corruption and corruption in Mongolia’s political culture.
The DP now has a long way to go if it hopes to recover, although a rare bright spot for the party is that Battulga left the presidency with a generally positive record. Before leaving office, he issued a decree designating the ancient burial mounds of Noyon-Uul, considered sacred by many Mongols, as a protected area for its historical and cultural significance. There have been a number of major protests in Mongolia since 2016 to protest against mining activities near Noyon-Uul, Battulga’s decree therefore did much to ensure a positive legacy for his presidency. On foreign policy, Battulga also successfully oversaw efforts to establish a strategic partnership with the United Stateswhile strengthening Mongolia’s neighborhood policies with Russia and China.
While the mongolian presidency is often described as a symbolic office, its occupant in fact has an important responsibility in foreign and internal affairs. The president is expected to be apolitical and protect the interests of the Mongolian public rather than a single political party or constituency. Although Khurelsukh’s strong affiliation with the MPP may influence his approach to the post, many Mongols who voted for him appeared to do so because of perceived cultural and personal ties to Khurelsukh rather than political ties. Indeed, although they come from different parties, Khurelsukh’s outlook and policies are somewhat similar to those of Battulga – nationalist and conservative, with a message of building a just society and acting as guardians. natural resources of Mongolia. These are generally issues that unite all Mongolians, regardless of political affiliation.
Looking ahead, the Mongolian economy will require a major transition over the next ten to twenty years. As developed and developing countries turn to renewable energy and move away from polluting fossil fuels, Mongolia will need to diversify its economy away from its current reliance on coal exports. Khurelsukh’s policies will have to be flexible in order to solve this problem. He will also have to cooperate with Mongolia’s neighbors and partners in the world to maintain the country’s presence on the international scene.
Opposition politicians and policy makers are likely to continue to sound the alarm about the MPP’s consolidation of power in Ulaanbaatar, especially the significant changes to the constitution and other related measures adopted in recent years. These worries are certainly justified, but a period of unified single-party control may actually prove salutary for Mongolia, tempering the political intrigues and infighting within government that have long plagued the country’s politics. This certainly seems to reflect the demands of the Mongolian electorate, at least for now.
Bolor Lkhaajav is book editor at the Mongolia Society, Indiana University Bloomington. She is a frequent researcher and commentator on Mongolian politics and foreign policy, and also hosts the “77 Nation” podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @Bolor_fp.