Mongolia’s Democracy Under Stress

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

Mongolia’s Democracy Under Stress

A wave of protests (and lack of any government response) is challenging Mongolia’s political system.

Mongolia’s Democracy Under Stress

A protester wears a face mask and holds a banner during an anti-pollution protest in central Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (January 28, 2017). The banners read “Smoke-free Ulaanbaatar,” “No More Agony for Ulaanbaatar” and “The Solution to Reducing Air Pollution is Urban Development.”

Credit: REUTERS/B. Rentsendorj

It has been 26 years since Mongolia’s peaceful democratic revolution. It was the 1990 peaceful revolution that created democratic, multiparty governance in Mongolia. Some political scientists say that 25 years is a good time to diagnose political institutions, and Mongolia’s have seen mixed results. In recent years, notably during the tenure of President N. Enkhbayar and current President Ts. Elbegdorj, there have been a number of social mobilizations (some successful, some not) aiming to stop political corruption, police brutality, and a troubled judicial system. Since the late 2000s, Mongolia has experienced a number of intermittent protests in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the countryside in response to the government’s negligence toward solving prolonged issues, further provoking the people to demand better governance.

As Mongolia’s foreign policy and economic apparatus expand, there seems to be a growing gap between the government and its people. Mongolia is a country where politics, especially involving top government officials, plays an almost-too-important role in all sectors, including the Anti-Corruption Committee (which was created by Elbegdorj himself). As a result, government policies and actions are failing to serve as a good governance model and economic and social policies are failing to reach Mongolia’s people economically, socially, judicially, and ethically.

Between 2014 and 2016, Mongolia experienced large numbers of social mobilizations both at home and abroad. Those studying and working abroad are well-informed about Mongolia’s economic crisis, skyrocketing unemployment rate, and seeming inability to solve these issues.  Other prolonged issues include poor air quality during the harsh winters, a corrupt legal system that is maneuvered and manipulated by politicians, and opposition party members and proxies in government agencies. The overall negligence attitude toward the people’s right to protest has provoked Mongolians at home and abroad. Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have been the major tool for communication and mobilizing like-thinking groups.

One prominent example is the “Battle of Noyon-Uul” or the “Protect Noyon-Uul” protests. From 2014 to 2017, protests have been successfully mobilized both at home and abroad by Mongolian students, workers, former politicians, environmental organizations, and herder activists to divert the government’s decision to exploit historical, sacred land in Selenge Province, Noyon Uul in cooperation with Canadian mining giant Centerra Gold. Protesters have successfully managed to organize a large group of representatives similar to Kyrgyzstan’s stand against Centerra Gold.

Ever since Mongolia implemented its mining-led economic development strategy, the country has experienced intermittent anti-mining, anti-exploitation protests. Although mining is an important sector for economic growth, the Mongolian people feel that unless the utilization of natural resources benefits employment, human capital, technology, and innovation, such business (and the heavy lobbying that comes with it) only expands the gap between the government and the people.

The year 2016 surprised both the people and the government with a number of peaceful protests. On May 9, 2016, confidential offshore information from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama, was revealed to the public through a number of media reports. Although it’s important to remember that not all offshore transactions are illegal, the leak exposed a lengthy list of potential tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal transactions, which involved top government officials from number of nations, including Mongolia. Among the 49 Mongolian individuals and business entities named in the Panama Papers, there were accounts related to two former prime ministers of Mongolia, S. Bayar and S. Batbold; parliament member S. Bayartsogt; and other government officials. Following the leak, journalists and activists were arrested and their findings were confiscated by the authorities.

As the government ignored popular demands for transparency, activists established the People’s Anti-Offshore Committee. On March 31, 2017, a large number of group members and their supporters, including the elderly and children, gathered in the heart of Ulaanbaatar to call for action and seek justice. Since late March, united anti-offshore Mongolian groups have been formed in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, South Korea, New York, San Francisco and expected to grow. These social mobilizations were highly organized and involved educated young adults seeking justice and united for the future of Mongolia. These groups demand that the implicated politicians reveal their offshore accounts; step down from office; use the offshore money to contribute to paying off Mongolia’s foreign loans; and face legal actions.

As of April 9, 2017, representatives from the anti-offshore committee have reached out to the president, Anti-Corruption Committee, Central Intelligence Agency, chief of the police department, and the Office of the Prosecutor of Mongolia, but none of these agencies have responded to allegations against top government officials. Unlike governments in Iceland, Chile, Austria, Uruguay, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Spain, Armenia, and Hong Kong, the Mongolian government and the judicial system have been slow to react, raising suspicions of a deep web of bribery and corruption cases.

Prolonged political scandals, economic downturns, and societal disappointments driving a growing number of peaceful protests — not only in Mongolia but in Europe and in the United States, where there are large Mongolian populations. The mobilization of such protests are becoming a theme in Mongolia’s political disarray. More importantly, government negligence and police brutality are provoking even more nationwide protests against a variety of issues: media censorship, corruption, offshore accounts, pollution, mining in national heritage and historical sites, and the “Moonies,” a religious sect from South Korea.

Although social mobilization and protests are normal in democratic nations, there is a time and capacity limit to peaceful protests. For Mongolia, a developing country trying to expand its foreign policy, it is fundamental to have a stable society. Hence, it would be wise for the authorities to take these mobilizations seriously to prevent social outbreak. Mongolia’s population reached 3 million in 2016; with a purposeful, powerful mobilization, the government should not underestimate their people both at home and abroad. History has been known to repeat itself, and there is no guarantee that a revolution like that seen in 1990 will not come again.

Bolor Lkhaajav is pursuing an M.A. in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco. She was formerly a Security Analyst with Horizon Intelligence.