Mongolian election signals growing voter cynicism
Mongolia’s June 28 election is set to produce a coalition government with no party in overall control but with the right-leaning Democratic Party commanding the largest number of seats in the nation’s parliament, the Ikh Khural.
Tellingly, voter turnout fell to a historical low of around 65 per cent, from 74 per cent in the 2008 parliamentary elections and 82 per cent in 2004. This signals a steadily rising public cynicism regarding party politics, which has failed to deliver improved living standards for the majority of the population despite the recent ‘mineral boom’ that boosted last year’s economic growth to 17 per cent.
Preliminary results for 21 of the 28 electoral districts suggest that the Democratic Party gained about 32 per cent of the popular vote, clearly benefitting from a dramatic split in the ranks of its rivals, the Mongolian People’s Party, which had been the dominant force in Mongolian politics since the 1990s but whose share of the vote sank to around 28 per cent. The rebel ‘Justice Coalition’ led by former president Nambaryn Enkhbayar came third with about 20 per cent of the vote.
When the dust settles on the last of the electoral results, the Democratic Party will need to put together a coalition government. Power-sharing is not new to Mongolia, which has seen a succession of coalition governments. Although the centre-left Mongolian People’s Party won a majority of parliamentary seats in the 2008 parliamentary elections, for example, it nevertheless formed a coalition with the Democratic Party that endured until January, when election campaigning began.
The broader issue facing Mongolia is one of social justice and the distribution of the income to be generated by the exploitation of nation’s enormous mineral wealth, estimated to be worth $1.3tn. Since the collapse of the Soviet-oriented command economy in the 1990s, Mongolians have seen wealth concentrated in the hands of a relatively small elite, while the majority learnt to survive on low and insecure incomes.
In the 1990s Mongolia introduced a multi-party parliamentary democracy modelled on European examples, resulting in an initially vibrant political culture. However, allegations of corruption dogged the political elite who became closely associated in public perceptions with the new rich. Two parties emerged to dominate the political scene: the former Soviet-style Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (which renamed itself the Mongolian People’s Party in 2010) and the Democratic Party. The major parties have proved to be good at sharing power but poor at convincing an increasingly jaded public that they were free of corruption. Many voters came to see the two parties as having grown together to form a pragmatic and largely self-interested circle of influence.
There has been widespread anxiety that the country’s vast mineral wealth might be acquired by foreign companies, or monopolized by the wealthy few, leaving Mongolia as poor as ever. Such fears have opened the way for a populist politics that in 2008 saw the major parties competing to promise voters cash pay-outs from future mining incomes.
Attention has focussed on two huge mineral sites in the Gobi region, the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine and the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine.
Oyu Tolgoi is 66 per cent owned by the Canadian company Ivanhoe, backed by Australia-based RTZ, and is due to begin commercial operations next year, eventually boosting Mongolia’s GDP by an estimated 30 per cent. The Mongolian state negotiated rights to 34 per cent of the venture but there is widespread public concern that this was too low a share and that the government had sold the Mongolian taxpayer short.
Tavan Tolgoi, which promises to be another massive development, was due to be exploited by an international consortium but growing public pressure led the Mongolian government to suspend these plans. This move, which dismayed some potential foreign investors, reflected the political potential of ‘resource nationalism’ and the recent splits in the dominant parties.
When the Mongolian People’s Party dropped the world Revolutionary from name in 2010 its former leader Enkhbayar broke away with a minority faction to form his own party using the older name and calling for a renegotiation of rights to mineral extraction. The political feud became all the more bitter when, on April 13, Enkhbayar was dramatically arrested on charges of corruption and eventually barred from standing as a parliamentary candidate.
His party, nevertheless, tapped into the general discontent and formed an alliance with a splinter from the Democratic Party to run as the Justice Coalition. That they have won around 20 per cent of the popular vote will give the established parties much pause for thought.
David Sneath is an associate fellow in the Asia group at Chatham House and head of the division of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge