Crossroads Asia

Tensions High as Mongolians Cast Ballots in Parliamentary Elections

Fears of potential unrest have led the capital city to ban public assembly, alcohol sales.

Tensions High as Mongolians Cast Ballots in Parliamentary Elections

The director of a polling site at Ulaanbaatar Public Library speaks with elections observers on site, with a voting machine in the background.

Credit: Peter Bittner for The Diplomat

Mongolians cast their votes on June 29 in parliamentary elections for 76 seats in the State Great Khural. The atmosphere in Ulaanbaatar leading up to the big day has been tense.

The mayor of Ulaanbaatar issued a decree banning public events on election day as well as the sale of alcohol on June 29 and 30. Alcohol sales are normally prohibited on the first of every month, so there will be three consecutive days with no alcohol sales including July 1.

“Some people are afraid of violence happening again, like 2008,” said Lhagva Erdene, executive producer of Mongol TV. In the aftermath of parliamentary elections in 2008, five people were killed when the headquarters of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party was attacked after post-result protests turned violent.

This year, 498 candidates are running for parliament in a hotly-contested race between the ruling Democratic Party and the Mongolian People’s Party, which governed during the communist era—and previously included the word “revolutionary” in its party name. Sixty-nine of the nearly 500 candidates are independents, an unusually high number reflective of a public receptive to new voices.

The 17-day official campaign period, which ended a day before the election, saw Ulaanbaatar filled with rallies and parades. Caravans with megaphones roamed the streets recruiting spectators to upcoming campaign speeches. Posters and banners advertising the candidates filled the sidewalks, highway medians, and sides of buildings.

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The campaign materials have now all been removed and a quiet anticipation hangs over the city as voters head to the polls on the public holiday and await the official tally.

Despite the plethora of candidates to choose from, many Mongolians are not pleased with their options. A poor economy, accusations of high-level corruption across the political aisles, and a recent constitutional ruling unfavorable to minority parties have many Mongolians fed up with the status quo, resulting in widespread voter discontent and expectations of poor voter turnout.

On June 22, the Asia Foundation published a post on their website criticizing the recent election law, including the “last-minute remapping” of political districts. The piece also condemned the controversial elimination of a proportional representation system through an April 21, 2016 Constitutional Court ruling.

The Asia Foundation’s blog echoed a highly critical report published by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on June 17, which cited a wide variety of issues in the election process, including a lack of transparency regarding campaign finance, media ownership structure, and election administration.

The political maneuvering did not stop after the official end of campaigning. An eleventh-hour announcement from Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg of the majority Democratic Party shocked the nation the evening before it headed to the polls. According to local news sources, Saikhanbileg announced that Mongolia’s Trade and Development Bank reportedly plans to purchase the minority 49 percent stake in the Erdenet Mining Corp. from Rostec Corp., a company headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-time ally, Sergey Chemezov.

No statement on the deal is currently available on either company’s website, nor is one displayed on the bank’s webpage. A source familiar with the matter said the official announcement is not expected until after the election. However, TDB’s CEO Orkhon Onon made a live appearance last night on Mongolian National Broadcasting confirming the deal and also published a press release on election day on

Mongolia’s Erdenet mine is one of the world’s largest copper producers. Since its commissioning in 1978, in partnership with the former Soviet Union, it has been a significant contributor to Mongolia’s GDP.

Former CEO of the Trade and Development Bank Medree Balbar is currently running for parliament in Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar district as a Democratic Party candidate and is seeking the 59th seat in the Great State Khural.

The prime minister’s press conference came during the 24-hour pre-election period when campaign-related communications are forbidden by law. In his declaration, Saikhanbileg said his statement became necessary after the Russian outlet, Interfax, broke the news and it began to explode on Mongolian social media.

Still, the prime minister’s statement was met with outrage by opposition and minority parties who called the move illegal, unfair, and politically motivated.

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“The deal on Erdenet is not good at all in terms of its timing,” said Munksoyol Baatarjav, an independent candidate running against Medree for the 59th seat. She also criticized the privatization of the ownership stake.

“The Democratic Party is making several populist decisions,” said Baatarjav. “They just want to be re-elected.”

The leading opposition party, the Mongolian People’s Party, also faced pre-election controversy this past week, thanks to leaked voice recordings of its members discussing the potential sale of political positions should the party succeed at the ballot box.

“People just don’t have that much faith in a chance for real change,” said a Mongolian journalist who declined to be named.

As Michael Kohn reported for Bloomberg, the economy is the most important issue for many voters this election. Once dubbed “Minegolia” for its extraction-based economy, which five years ago ranked among the fastest-growing in the world—a whopping 17.5 percent—the IMF forecast Mongolia’s economic growth at a dismal 0.4 percent for 2016.

In part due to lagging demand for raw materials from neighboring China, its largest trading partner, the Mongolian economy has struggled. According to the World Bank roughly a quarter of Mongolians now live in poverty. Whichever party wins today will face an uphill battle to spur sustainable growth.