Mongolia: Proving the Naysayers Wrong

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Mongolia: Proving the Naysayers Wrong

Despite predictions, Mongolia is proving a persistent, if flawed, democracy.

Observers say he is a sure thing. His party hopes he is. In what is a three-way competition, Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj will be seeking to retain power in the presidential election scheduled for June 26, keeping his Democratic Party the dominant force in government at least until the next legislative election.

His main rival is Bat-Erdene, of the opposition Mongolian People's Party. But Elbegdorj is the tried and tested candidate whose political career dates back to the country's democratic beginnings, when he helped launch a democratic revolution in 1990. He’s been prime minister twice, non-consecutively, and is a proponent of foreign investment to keep the Mongolian economy growing.

“The president has to defend his record of the last four years,” says Badral Munkhdul, owner of media group Cover Mongolia.

A mining boom has helped Mongolia achieve tremendous economic growth since Elbegdorj took office in 2009. Exports of coal and copper to China have been the chief driver of GDP growth, which clocked in at 17.5 percent in 2011 and reached 12.3 percent in 2012. But the benefits have exacerbated the gap between rich and poor, leaving many resentful of the industry.

“Generally the country as a whole and the population has benefitted from the recent mining boom,” explains Munkhdul. “Of course, there is a gap between how much the poor are taking advantage and how the rich are. It’s disproportionate.”

Munkhdul believes the Mongolian government has yet to do enough to resolve the disparity. In 2012, when under the control of the Mongolian People’s Party, it tried a quick fix by initiating a cash allowances program. The program, which distributed the equivalent of about $15 a month, proved widely popular. Ironically, say critics, it was also the main culprit for rising inflation, which hurts the poor most. According to the World Bank, annual inflation soared to 14 percent in December 2012.

Elbegdorj’s challenger Bat-Erdene is one of a younger breed of politician who has largely campaigned on the strength of his “clean hands,” although he has not made any specific charges of corruption against the president. His Mongolian People’s Party is the remnant of the communist party that ruled Mongolia for nearly 70 years between 1921 and 1990, and has controlled Mongolia for most of its history as a democracy. The party has seen its influence largely sidelined since being relegated to opposition, and is eager to return to power.

The final challenger, Natsag Udval, is something of a stand-in for the currently incarcerated Nambar Enkhbayar. She has been one of the disgraced former politician's most ardent supporters since his arrest for alleged corruption during his presidency. She also runs on the novelty of being the country's first female candidate for the presidency.

Looking back at Mongolia’s last five presidential elections, its vibrant democracy has emerged from unlikely beginnings. The country is sandwiched between two giants that show little regard for democratic values, yet rather than mirror the policies of either China or Russia – each of which has at some point controlled the nation – Mongolia has instead embraced what is now today a functioning, if flawed, democracy.

To buffer the influence of both its neighbors, Mongolia has instituted a third neighbor policy. This foreign policy directive encourages closer relations outside the landlocked country’s immediate vicinity with countries such as the United States and Japan. The approach has paid dividends in recent years, with a string of Western leaders – including former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair – visiting the capital Ulaanbaatar.

This unlikely poster-child for democracy has been an active supporter of democracy in other developing nations, too. The most recent example is its hosting of the seventh ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies in late April, where it handed off its role as president of the organization to El Salvador. Mongolia has also earned itself the role of a participating state of the Organization for Security and Democracy in Europe (OSCE). Its troops are active in peacekeeping missions, with 800 currently stationed in South Sudan.

The tremendous feat of transitioning from a one-party state largely under the thumb of Soviet Russia to a full-blown democracy is not one that should be taken lightly. At the time, many observers thought it couldn’t last. And indeed, Mongolia struggled after the exit of its largest benefactor, the former USSR, which led to the collapse of a number of social programs, dramatic inflation, and the abandonment of many factories and industries.

But although some feel nostalgic for the support the socialist system offered Mongolian society for nearly seven decades, most still strongly embrace democracy, according to Perenlei Erdenejargal, executive director of the Open Society Forum’s office in Mongolia. “Some say there are those who try to own this democracy, but democracy is quite widely accepted,” she says. “The Mongols are traditionally very individualistic people, and the nomadic culture always exercises individual freedoms and human rights. Those 70 years were a change, but historically this is how we lived.”

However, the road to democracy has not been smooth, and Mongolia has hit its fair share of roadblocks and potholes. The best-known example is the 2008 riots in Ulaanbaatar, sparked by suspicions that the recently held parliamentary elections had been fixed by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (“Revolutionary” was dropped in 2010). A protest in Sukhbaatar Square, where Government Palace is located, turned violent. Riots lasted two days and resulted in five deaths as well as the torching of the party’s headquarters.

Although the Open Society Forum was barred from observing the voting process on election day in 2008, Erdenejargal said there was evidence that there was indeed foul play.

“I think we had serious problems,” said Erdenejargal, specifically naming issues with the manual vote counting. She said cash was distributed to make sure voters turned out at one district where they monitored the campaign up until the election and they saw problems with the ballots.

Mongolia has since introduced new voting regulations and measures to prevent voter fraud. For the parliamentary elections last year, the country used electronic voting machines for the first time and it has distributed new identification cards that come with a computer chip to verify a person’s identity. The 2012 election also saw the acceptance of ballots from Mongolian citizens living outside the country. Most telling, though, was the successful dispute against three candidates for breaking the election law, which eventually resulted in two of them having their results forfeited.

Erdenejargal is confident this year’s election would be uncontroversial. The only uncertainty is whether or not a run-off vote will be needed. Victory requires 50 percent of the electorate plus one vote. But whatever the final tally, for Mongolia an uneventful election is a successful one.