An orchestrated presidential election in Mongolia

By Bat-Orgil Altankhuyag
Independent political analyst

In the midst of the deadly pandemic, Mongolia has held its eighth presidential election on June 9.

The ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP)’s candidate Khurelsukh Ukhnaa had a landslide victory. The election has various, major implications for Mongolia’s democracy.

An orchestrated election

According to the Mongolian constitution, only parties that already have seats in parliament are eligible to participate in the presidential election in Mongolia. After the 2020 legislative elections, four parties had seats in the parliament. However, this year’s presidential election was only contested by three of these parties and was an unequal election for the opposition parties in various ways. The following three main events can show why this presidential election was orchestrated by the ruling party.

First, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa resigned as Prime Minister in January 2021 to run for the president of the MPP. One of the main changes introduced in the constitutional amendment of 2019 was a single-term presidency. Initially, the article was planned to be implemented after 2025. However, this date was changed to 2020 before the amendment was passed by  parliament. Just two months before the election, the constitutional court made a decision that sitting and former presidents could not run again for this election due to the article on the amendment. In fact, however, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa’s biggest competitorwas the sitting president Battulga Khaltmaa, who had a high rating from the general public as can be seen from some polls.

Second, the MPP had successfully struck a deal with the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). They announced to merge with the MPP just before the election. It was an important move for the MPP candidate because the MPP candidate lost in the previous presidential election due to the MPRP candidate’s vote sharing. It is clear now that the MPP offered high-ranking civil service positions  to the leaders of MPRP if victory was secured.

Third, the newly established National Labor Party (NLP) nominated Mongolian internet pioneer Enkhbat Dangaasuren for the election, who is little known among the voters of rural areas. Moreover, the NLP needed to introduce their candidate within 10 days of the campaign period, which was an impossible task. Nevertheless, Dangaasuren’s reputation increased dramatically during the short period of campaigning.

Unfortunately, he tested positive for Covid-19 during the campaign and had to cancel important campaign events. Many Mongolians are suspicious of the fact he tested positive just two days before the presidential debate while he had no symptoms of Covid-19. Because of this event, the presidential debate had not been organised for the first time since 1993 even though many people asked for a debate via online.

The MPP candidate went on to win the presidential election with the highest margin ever (68% of the total votes). Bagabandi Natsag won the presidential election with over 60% of the votes in 1996. However, in 2021, voter turnout was the lowest (59%) in the history of Mongolia’s presidential elections. Khurelsukh Ukhnaa won all 21 provinces and 9 districts in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Enkhbat Dangaasuren had won only among the people who participated from foreign countries. As a result of the factors described above, the Economist magazine described the presidential election as a “one-horse race”.

Clientelism at its peak

After the election, the Democratic Party candidate Erdene Sodnomzundui and NLP candidate Enkhbat Dangaasuren stated that they competed against the state apparatus and a large sum of money. These two opposing candidates did not officially congratulate Khurelsukh Ukhnaa. Enkhbat Dangaasure tweeted that this election set new records for corruption.

I argue this presidential election epitomised Mongolia’s clientelist political system. The MPP has been extremely successful in past elections, especially the last few elections. This is because as a successor of the communist party, it has the biggest structure along with state administrative units in Mongolia, which works like a spider’s web.

As a ruling party, both opposition candidates said the MPP has been using state bureaucracy for their election campaigns, especially at the local level such as the heads of Khoroo and Bag. For example, an independent columnist and political commentator Jargal Defacto wrote that the MPP was handing out their hundredth anniversary medal (their anniversary happened just before the election) with 100,000 tugriks (US$35) to thousands of voters.

However, it is still unknown how much money they spent during the election. Jargal Defacto has been arguing that political party financing has been an Achilles’ heel of Mongolian democracy since 1992. It is getting more difficult to compete against the ruling party, and they are getting higher percentages of votes in the elections.

A new era of illiberal democracy?

Even though previous president Battulga Khaltmaa got elected from the DP, he had a close relationship with current president, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa. Battulga used this relationship to implement his political agenda through the National Security Council (NSC), which has three members - the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament. I wrote a piece on why that ruined the checks and balances enshrined in our constitution.

There was a concern that Khurelsukh might use this council more often than the previous president  to control the parliament and cabinet. This concern was proved to be true too quickly because Khurelsukh Ukhnaa announced that he will make decisions on four issues in the NSC even before his presidential pledge. MP Enkhbayar Battumur tweeted about this news that these four issues should be decided in the parliament. There is a higher chance that he might control the parliament and prime minister with his cabinet.

According to the 1992 constitution, Mongolia has a semi-presidential system like France. However, there has been a consensus among politicians and scholars that this semi-presidential system has become problematic for many reasons. That is why two big amendments in 2000 and 2019 were aiming towards a ‘pure’ parliamentary system.

Scholars like Munkhsaikhan Odonkhuu who participated actively in the constitutional amendment were hoping that the new amendment would revert thepresident’s role to its initial position, as a symbolic figure in the parliamentary system. However, this hope might fade away with few decisions and actions of the new president. One of the most important elements of liberal democracy is the checks and balances on power. Without this constitutional limit, democracy will be a tyranny of the majority. Thus, Khurelsukh’s six-year term might be a new era of illiberal democracy in Mongolia.

What should be done?

Elections will lose meaning if the one-horse race continues in the future. We have to keep in mind that voter  turnout has been decreasing  every election and this election was the lowest. That’s why we need a strong opposition party and other relevant parties. In our parliamentary elections, we have been using block voting system or FPTP method, which had been an advantageous electoral system for the ruling party.

Mongolia needs to change its current electoral system and state funding of political parties in order to increase the number of relevant parties (Altankhuyag, 2020). As mentioned before, only parliamentary parties are allowed to participate in the presidential elections, which is also problematic. OSCE election observers stated that even parties without seats in parliament should be allowed to nominate their candidates in the presidential elections in Mongolia.

To ensure its democracy survives, we need urgent political reform in Mongolia.

Banner image: Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa delivers a speech. Source: Facebook/Khurelsukh Ukhnaa

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politics; election Politics; Election

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