Political shenanigans ahead of a June presidential election in Mongolia have taken a new turn by shifting the battle toward outlawing entire parties (the ruling party no less) and by alleging military connections.
On April 18, President Battulga Khaltmaa issued a decree to dissolve the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). The MPP currently holds a parliamentary supermajority and successfully amended the Constitution in 2019 to significantly check presidential powers. The presidential decree included specific accusations against Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, whom it is widely believed will be the MPP candidate for the imminent presidential elections. Battulga belongs to the Democratic Party, the main rival to the MPP.
The text appeared on Battulga’s presidential website, with an embedded YouTube video of Battulga presenting the order in front of the white yak-tail standards symbolizing state authority that stand in the heart of the Government Building on Sukhbaatar Square. The Governing Committee of the MPP held a meeting and responded with a video on Facebook Live, featuring eight MPP members, seven of whom are parliamentarians, and the secretary of the Governing Committee, standing in front of a staircase in what appears to be the MPP headquarters building adjacent to the Government Building and Sukhbaatar Square.
In other words, the matter does not appear to be settled, and the struggle has only intensified. The MPP Governing Committee also stated that Battulga’s decree will be discussed in the relevant Standing Committees of parliament, news.mn reports.
Battulga’s move follows the decision of the Constitutional Court on April 16 that countered his claims that he should be able to run in the upcoming presidential elections of June 2021, despite a constitutional amendment in effect stating that presidents may hold only one term. The State Great Khural, Mongolia’s parliament, has not yet accepted the decision officially. There has been some commentary that to accept the decision would mean that the parliament would be accepting that it had acted unconstitutionally when making previous changes to the Law on Presidential Elections.
Candidates for president are to be named in early May by the parties represented in parliament and the election is to be held on June 9.
While some of these statements may be dismissed as an early start to the presidential campaign, the frequent reference to the constitutionality of various measures, in addition to mutual complaints that political opponents are threatening Mongolia’s national security, raises some fears about a more general threat to democracy.
Mutual Accusations Around Mobilizing the Military
Perhaps most alarmingly, both sides have accused the other of improper relations with the military. Battulga characterizes certain reforms by Khurelsukh (the only place in the text where the former prime minister is actually named) as “militarization” of the party through coordination between governors’ offices, local party organizations, and local military units. Battulga states that “this is also a cause of suspicion that the Party is at risk of executing military actions.” Tweets are also resurfacing claims by MP Enkh-Amgalan, made during a Parliamentary session in 2018, that Khurelsukh had gathered “around 300 military officers.”
The MPP hit back with similar allegations. According to news.mn, at the press conference at which the MPP Governing Committee statement was presented, MP Ayursaikhan stated that “Reportedly, the Mongolian president, after making his statement, visited the General Staff of the Armed Forces.”
In addition to these accusations of improper attempts to use the military in political maneuvering, the two statements each accuse the “other side” of unconstitutional and illegal actions, including undermining national unity and security. Battulga’s decree accuses the MPP of violating multiple articles of the Mongolian Constitution, the Law on Political Parties, and the National Security Concept. He alleged that the National Security Council is captured by the MPP, and that the Constitutional Court is “unworthy of the people’s confidence and recognition.”
Meanwhile, MP and former Minister of Finance Ch. Khurelbaatar stated that more than a dozen laws had been violated by Battulga’s decree. The written statement of the MPP Governing Council names many of the same laws as Battulga’s statement, and states that Battulga’s statement is an “act by which the President Kh. Battulga abuses his legal authority, infringes on the right of citizens to freedom of association, affects the independence of the judiciary, and undermines the values of democracy for personal gain.”
While Battulga’s statement charges the MPP with splitting up his own Democratic Party through manipulation of government agencies, the MPP statement calls on “all political parties to unite against the crime of attempting to overthrow the democratic system of parliament, seize state power by unconstitutional means and establish a dictatorship by dissolving any political party.”
Social Media Broadcasts and Public Response
Following the decision by the Constitutional Court, Battulga’s declaration may appear to many as a last-gasp effort to fight for his political life. However, he has chosen to do so by pointing to the power of the MPP, something that speaks to his readiness to play to popular sentiments. Many voters appear to be expressing concern about the possibility of an MPP president at a time when the Mongolian parliament is also dominated by the MPP.
The president’s live broadcast (on his Facebook page) on the decree took place at 12:16 a.m. on April 19 and has 1,200 shares and 1,500 comments at the time of writing. The broadcast on Facebook Live by livetv.mn of Battulga’s decree has 547,000 views, 23,000 “likes,” and 10,000 shares. The reaction varied, from many allying with the president to many criticizing him for dividing the country when he should be uniting it. The MPP Governing Council’s presentation of their statement (also live broadcast) similarly instigated public frustration. Although the event unfolded during the night hours in Mongolia, politicians have been criticized for showing up in mass when their power is on the line while remaining silent about numerous issues of social injustice.
Notably, there has been very little social media commentary by professional analysts that one would expect to see speaking about the Constitutional Court decision, and almost none about the president’s decree and the MPP’s response. The MPP Governing Committee statement also closes with: “We call on all our citizens not to fall prey to any illegal, provocative and organized activities at a critical time when we Mongolians are all together fighting the pandemic.” Battulga’s statement alleged that the COVID-19 pandemic had been repeatedly politicized.
The mention of COVID-19 measures in both statements is a reminder not only that Khurelsukh’s government stepped down in the wake of mass protest against its COVID-19 response in January, but also that the COVID-19 emergency in Mongolia continues to be dire. The pandemic is the context for rampant expressions of political dissatisfaction on the part of Mongolians. In addition to the belief that Khurelsukh “resigned” so that he would be free to run for president, in recent days many Mongolians have been expressing the sentiment that the Constitutional Court rulings, and associated parliamentary measures and presidential vetoes, on Battulga’s eligibility to run for president are a distraction from the worsening COVID-19 emergency in the country.