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Is Mongolia Heading Toward One-Party Rule?

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The Debate | Opinion

Is Mongolia Heading Toward One-Party Rule?

A constitutional and legislative crisis resulted in a hunger strike ahead of the June presidential election.

Is Mongolia Heading Toward One-Party Rule?
Credit: Flickr/ Nick Farnhill

The political struggle in Mongolia is intensifying as the presidential election approaches. Eight members of the parliament, A. Adiyasuren, S. Ganbaatar, N. Altankhuyag, Ts. Tuvaan, O. Tsogtgerel, N. Ganibal, J. Batsuuri, and D. Ganbat went on a week-long hunger strike protest. They are protesting the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) actions using the three critical organs of state – the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the General Election Committee – to manipulate the June 9 presidential election process.

Beginning on May 4, the MPs went on a hunger strike, spending the initial three nights on cold cement in sub-zero temperatures at Sukhbaatar Square. The government’s handling of these parliamentarians is causing discontent in the public sphere. In response to this political distress, Democratic Party leaders reached out to the international community, urging observers abroad to pay attention to recent developments in Mongolian politics ahead of the presidential election next month.

Parliament members and supporters from the Democratic Party fear that one-party rule may return after 31 years of multi-party governance since 1990.

On May 9, the Democratic Party caucus leader in the parliament, Ganbat Dashdondog, wrote to the Inter-Parliamentarian Union Secretary-General Martin Chungong. “In light of these events, I officially ask you to pay serious consideration to this situation, especially to the problem of life and safety of the Parliamentarians. As well, I would like to urge you to write directly to Mr. Zandanshatar, MP, Speaker of the Parliament, and Mr. Oyun-Erdene, the Prime Minister, asking them to provide minimum assistance to the strikers,” the letter said. Moreover, the MPs from the Democratic Party sent an official letter to the diplomatic missions and representatives of international organizations in Ulaanbaatar, requesting their assistance in observing the legitimacy of the presidential election and possible manipulation by the MPP.

In the 2020 parliamentary election, the MPP won 62 out of 76 seats in the parliament. With that large majority, and with Khurelsukh Ukhnaa as prime minister, the country’s political approach has leaned toward hard power, with a heavy determination to control the judiciary and an underlying tone of militarism. As incumbent President Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party stated to Mongolians citizens, “The ‘Mongolian Military Union,’ which is headed by the MPP Chairman Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, has been founded parallel to the MPR structure and charter. An additional proof is that the ‘Mongolian Military Union’ only supports the activities of the MPP and provides militarized structures in the provinces where the Democratic Party has won. No opposition party governors have been invited to join this organization. There is now a risk of the MPP undertaking political and military activities through this structure.”

Since 2016, the MPP has held a majority in the parliament, yet several high-level corruption cases involving senior party officials still haven’t been solved. The 60 billion tugrik case related to the 2016 elections involved senior party officials who still hold official positions in the government and Parliament. Instead of fighting corruption within its rank, the party continues to seek ultimate power and authority – in this case, the office of the president. This significantly threatens Mongolia’s democracy, multi-party governance, and the country’s overall democratic endeavors.

The MPP’s gambit to secure the president’s office began in 2019 with an amendment to the constitution, which allows the president to serve only once for a term of six years. This amendment created a divide in Mongolian society and the political realm. While the MPP side believes that Battulga and former President Enkhbayar Nambar should be prevented from running for re-election, the other side argued that since the amendment is prospective rather than retrospective, the “six years and once” should be used as a term of office after the next election. The politicization of the issue rose from the interests of political parties, instead of the morality of law.

On September 20, 2020, Battulga vetoed Parliamentary Resolution No. 73 on Conducting a Referendum and Adopting a Draft on Amending the Constitution of Mongolia. The MPP majority in the parliament disregarded the president’s veto. The amendments to the Constitution of Mongolia were approved on November 14, 2019, allowing the president to run for office once and serve a six-year term.

Later in 2021, the Constitutional Court initiated a dispute on a so-called fourth requirement for presidential candidates: That they cannot have previously served as president. The Office of the President deemed the “Constitutional Court dispute unfounded” for a variety of reasons. First, the Constitutional Court may not initiate disputes on words, letters, or meanings that are not in the constitution. Second, the court showed political bias by replacing one of its members, Tsogtoo Shar, who considered the dispute illegal. Third, the Constitutional Court has held the following procedure without finalizing the initial step.

The MPP and its parliamentary majority eagerly accepted the Constitutional Court’s decision on the same day, accepting the court’s suggestion to change the presidential election law. Much to the shock of foreign observers, the parliament spent just seven minutes to approve the amendments to the Law on Presidential Elections of Mongolia, which dictates that the president-elect shall not have previously served as the president of Mongolia.

It is apparent to foreign observers and international organizations working in Mongolia that the move was part of the political struggle ahead of the next presidential election on June 9, 2021. Given Mongolia’s current political climate – where the MPP holds a majority of seats in the parliament, and former Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa abruptly resigned to run for president – some are worried that the MPP is preparing to pursue one-party rule in time for its 100th anniversary.

The so-called “fourth requirement” created debates among legal scholars and political science professionals. According to Dr. Munkh-Erdene Lkhamsuren, a research fellow at Max Planck Institute in Germany, “the Constitutional Court, the Parliament, [and] the members of the parliament all violated the constitutional principles of democracy, justice, freedom, equality, national unity, and the rule of law. This so-called Constitutional Court dispute is an ‘attack’ on the Mongolian constitutional system, the constitutional order, and the Republic of Mongolia. All these activities are interconnected and organized.”

Altankhuyag Norov, a former prime minister of Mongolia, stated that Battulga has been unfairly removed from the game. He added, “We did not carry out a democratic revolution in 1990 so that the tunnel of injustice would fall into the hands of the one-party leader and Mongolia would become a one-party state.” Mongolia’s upcoming presidential election on June 9 is about preventing Mongolia from falling into one-party governance.

Mongolia’s political struggle has reached Washington, too. On May 5, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “to express [their] concern” about recent political developments that could increase the vulnerability of Mongolia to influence from outside through corruption and collision.

The week-long hunger strike by the MPs ended with the establishment of a joint working committee of parliament to monitor implementation of the Law on Registration of Political Parties and the Law on Presidential Elections, to hear anti-corruption reports, and to reform the Law on Political Parties. On May 18, the General Election Committee registered candidates for the election in accordance with the law that had suspended by the president for violating the constitution. On the same day, Democratic Party members in the Parliament announced this presidential election will be illegal.

The future of democracy in Mongolia is confronting uncertainty. The rule of law has been overrun and the constitution has been violated several times. Not only the parliament but the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court have been acting in favor of the MPP’s ultimate interests.

Looking at this issue from a broader lens, if Mongolia – the oasis of democracy between China and Russia – were to convert into a one-party dominated system, it would significantly change the geopolitical, economic, and social landscape in Northeast Asia.