Mongolian Democracy Crawls, But Moves Ahead
Reading some of the news out of Mongolia lately it would be easy to conclude that the country is on the verge of becoming yet another failed post-socialist experiment in democracy. Easy, but wrong. Parliamentary elections held late last month show an electorate exercising their rights, and institutions growing more functional at meeting the public’s demands.
The origins of the doomsday fears for Mongolian democracy lie in the April 13 arrest of former President Nambaryn Enkhbayar on corruption charges. Some inside Mongolia accuse him of instituting a culture of corruption throughout government. However, the specific allegations in his trial are relatively minor, involving the privatization of a hotel, religious donations and import duties. Yet his arrest became a circus as news cameras captured him resisting by refusing to put on his shoes, forcing police to carry him out of his home in his socks.
It’s no small matter for a government agency to authorize the arrest of a predecessor from an opposing party when the predecessor is plotting a political comeback. So observers might wonder whether this is a sign Mongolian democracy is running off the rails. Mr. Enkhbayar himself has encouraged such thinking, portraying himself as a political victim, complete with a hunger strike and PR campaign focused on garnering international support.
Yet a look at the June 28 parliamentary election belies the worst-case scenario. While Mongolia’s democracy is a work in progress like most liberal systems of governance, many Mongolians continue to be dedicated to the task of building a durable democracy.
The first thing to note about the vote, in which citizens chose all 76 members of the unicameral legislature, is that both the polling and the aftermath have been largely peaceful. This is progress compared to the last vote four years ago. Violent unrest erupted in the capital Ulan Bator, killing five, after the then-opposition Democratic Party (DP) alleged that the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) had engaged in massive election fraud.
Little evidence of election fraud was offered then, and the MPRP came into the previous legislature with a majority, even reaching out to the opposition. To ease passage of an investment agreement for the giant Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine, the MPRP invited the DP into a grand coalition that lasted until this January, when the DP exited the government.
To ensure that the violence four years ago would be remembered as a one-off case, the General Election Commission, a relatively independent body, significantly tightened campaign and polling regulations ahead of last month’s voting. For instance, it forced parties to submit an election platform and then subjected this submission to an audit, which would assess the financial feasibility of the policies proposed. Electronic vote-counting machines and the use of laptops with fingerprint recognition software for voter registration were also introduced, along with video cameras at polling stations.
While political parties have again alleged fraud after the vote and the police is investigating some of these allegations, my own conclusions as an election observer suggest that these improvements led to a much smoother vote than in 2008. I spent the day shuttling more than 200 kilometers between polling stations in Ulan Bator’s downtown and outlying districts. As voters stepped up to registration desks manned exclusively by civil servants, their residence records were pulled almost instantly following the fingerprint scan. Spot checks after the election, manually recounting ballots first counted by machine, suggest the machinery worked correctly.
Most encouragingly, the election results are set to be honored by all. An alliance led by the DP is likely to take over power from the coalition led by the Mongolian People’s Party (the new name the MPRP gave itself in 2010). This smooth transition once again proves Mongolia’s status as the only post-socialist democracy in Asia.
Still, in light of a proper electoral setup, the fraud allegations are telling. There is little concrete evidence at this stage of any serious problems beyond local irregularities, so the circulating of these allegations signals a lack of trust in political parties, their goals and the means by which they achieve them.
This lingering absence of trust is linked to the lack of parties’ ideological or policy profile. Political parties continue to be set up around the business interests of politicians, so it’s hard to build confidence that they are anything but a collection of oligarchs. This concern flared after parliament showed its resource nationalism in May by forcing the biggest foreign investments in the country to henceforth require state approval. Such attitudes will now be represented noisily by Mr. Enkhbayar’s re-founded MPRP.
That the parties don’t have a clear profile is playing itself out in coalition negotiations too, and there is good news here. Since the DP garnered a plurality of seats, some of its officials want to form a coalition. The obvious coalition partner would be the Mongolian People’s Party. This grand coalition would have a solid majority and thus the greatest ability to move Mongolia forward in tackling the many challenges it faces.
It’s true that a DP-led coalition may not change specific policies. What’s more, if the public doesn’t see steady improvement in governance and a fall in corruption over time, the lack of trust could undermine the legitimacy of elections. Yet, even without an ideological profile, an effective government through a grand coalition may still contribute to the building of trust in political parties and thus the continued institutionalization of democracy in Mongolia.
Mr. Dierkes is as associate professor and the Keidanren Chair in Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research.