Mongolia: is stability the new challenge?

Countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which, following a brief stint of democracy in the early 1990s, have returned to a state of authoritarianism, serve as a warning to a country that is yet to find a balance between poverty and potentially immense wealth.

Alex Franquelli
10 July 2013

On 26 June, Mongolia chose its new president. The outcome did not come as a surprise. The incumbent, President Tsakhia Elbegdorj (a candidate of the Democratic Party) was always likely to win a second term and so he did, beating the current Minister of Health and first woman candidate Natsag Udval (Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) and former wrestling champion Bat-Erdene (Mongolian People’s Party). This wasn’t a thrilling election race both because the challenging candidates lacked political appeal and because of an overall sense among the Mongolian electorate that President Elbegdorj’s first term in office was efficacious enough to give him another go.

His presidency is commonly perceived as successful because of his commitment in the national and international spheres. Domestically, after playing a key role in the democratic movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his liberal stance has firmly established civil rights at the centre of his political platform, contributing, for example, to the abolition of capital punishment in 2012. Elbegdorj’s efforts have undoubtedly favoured the growth of civil engagement in public affairs both locally and nationally. This has reversed a common trend of post-Soviet states, Mongolia included (although it was never part of the Soviet Union, Mongolia followed Moscow’s diktats almost verbatim), which tend towards low levels of political association. The growth in political engagement has helped ignite national debates on issues like the construction of nuclear storage facilities and on the ever-growing fear of Chinese soft colonialism and falling commodity prices.

So, why change? Despite her close affiliation with former President Enkhbayar, who was arrested following accusations of corruption in April 2012, Natsag Udval did not obtain much support from erstwhile supporters of the disgraced, although still widely popular, politician. Her candidacy somehow failed to appeal to the female electorate, thus not taking her beyond a mere 6.5 per cent. Wrestling champion Bat-Erdene, considered by many the only potential threat to the incumbent, managed to tally 41.97 per cent of the votes, failing to pose a real threat but making sure that the winning candidate got just enough to avoid a second round whose outcome would have been potentially uncertain.

President Tsakhia Elbegdorj is therefore Mongolia’s sixth President with 50.23 per cent of the votes in what will probably be the most challenging term for the young nation, both domestically and internationally. What the outcome of the election tells us is that, for the first time in its democratic history, Mongolia has chosen to re-elect a candidate of the Democratic Party, thus renewing its trust in what US President Barack Obama has designated an “important leader in advancing democracy and freedom” in a country that remains “a key partner for the United States in Asia and globally” and “which serves as a significant example of positive reform and transformation for peoples around the world". If one looks beyond the obligatory hyperbole of the message, it is clear how valuable a partner Ulaanbaatar is for Washington, especially in light of the new role that Mongolia is trying to carve out for itself in the international arena. 

Talks with the US and Japan regarding the building of storage facilities to stock and dispose of nuclear waste in the vast Mongolian grassland have been halted after a series of protests. But President Elbegdorj can now continue to advance the idea of his country as a mediator in international disputes. Like the one on the Dokdo/Takeshima islands that sees two key American allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, dangerously claiming sovereignty over a bunch of apparently unimportant rocks. Or the close diplomatic relations with North Korea, which put Mongolia on top of the list of potential mediators to resolve the intricate network of interests south of the 38th Parallel.

Elbegdorj will most probably not try to back down on these issues having spent most of his career, both as Prime Minister and President, contributing to shaping Mongolia’s foreign relations in a country which constitutes a novelty and an anomaly both in terms of democratisation and international relations. Elbegdorj’s re-election means that Mongolia’s policies have proved – so far – to be successful and aimed at expanding that Third Neighbour Policy that has steered the country’s sense of the importance of political and economic alliances with the west as an outlet from the limiting boundaries to which it is geographically and geopolitically confined.

‘Perseverance’ and ‘steadiness’ seem to be the keywords for this second mandate, which domestically, analysts say, will be focused on resolving one of Mongolia’s main issues: corruption. The negative models, in this case, abound. Countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which, following a brief stint of democracy in the early 1990s, have returned to a state of authoritarianism, serve as a warning to a country that is yet to find a balance between poverty and, potentially, immense wealth. An enormous amount of it that will soon come from its coal, uranium, copper and gold deposits is mostly located just north of the border with China.

A $6.5bn facility has been built at the biggest extracting site at Oyu Tolgoi, in the Ömnögovi Province, by a joint-venture co-owned by the Mongolian government and mining giant Rio Tinto. But the export of copper concentrate, which was due to start just before the elections, was stopped by the Mongolian government following a request to have all revenues processed through Mongolian banks. The first shipment left for China on 9 July and, according to analysts, Oyu Tolgoi alone will increase Mongolia’s GDP by a third by 2020, although benefits to local populations are still deemed ‘doubtful’ by international NGOs and observers.

This second term is likely to confirm the direction taken by Mongolia since Elbegdorj’s ascent to office in 2009. The electorate wants to see stability and consistency brought to a political system of which it has historically been very critical. The ‘catch-all’ policies of the main parties, aimed at securing high levels of membership, have somehow reduced the differences between the candidates and have strongly contributed to making the electoral campaign a largely unappealing affair where no real debates between the three main actors have taken place. The main exception being the television discussion that took place on 24 June, described by Julian Dierkes, Associate Professor at British Columbia University and an expert in Mongolian politics, as a Q & A which had a winner in the weakest contestant: Natsag Udval.

The apparent banality of the election contest is, in part, a product of the new Presidential Election Law. Adopted at the end of 2012, it prevents individuals from standing for election, thereby restricting the choice to candidates nominated by parties or coalitions. Additionally, candidates are not allowed to include in their political platforms subjects that are deemed to be outside their sphere of competence (mainly security and foreign policy). This limits not only the range of potential issues to be debated but also the possibility that a huge part of the electorate (the less informed or educated, for instance) might identify itself with themes like the role of Mongolia in the world. Overall, the OSCE, in its preliminary conclusions, has defined the elections as “characterized by respect for the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and movement; contestants were able to campaign without hindrance, and rallies remained free of incidents”; an outstanding result even for a peaceful nation with a sparse population like Mongolia.

Rather ironically, the very normality will be the main challenge for Elbegdorj, who will be asked to continue to represent what less than two years ago was the world’s fastest growing economy. And which is now starting to come to terms with both the country’s renewed role at the international level and the demands of a global commodity market that, despite being extremely volatile, represents the main source of growth for an industrial sector still far from competitive.

“Stability, stability, stability! Isn’t that what happens when an incumbent is re-elected?”, argues Professor Julian Dierkes. Will Mongolia keep on dodging international controversies while scouting for them at the same time? Four years can be a very long time.

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