From yurt-dwellers to bankers, Mongolians worn out by 'corrupt' politics

Since its inception, Mongolia's parliamentary democracy has struggled with a legacy of corruption and economic misfortune -- and the electorate is now hungry for change. 

Mari Valdur
21 July 2016

Men watch a parade by the Mongolian National Guard. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/ AP/Press Association Images. All Rights Reserved

Men watch a parade by the Mongolian National Guard. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/ AP/Press Association Images. All Rights ReservedMongolia is known for the nomadic lifestyle of many of its citizens, its mines of global importance and for being an unlikely – if troubled – democracy landlocked by Russia and China. On 29 June, amid deep economic problems Mongolians showed their discontent by voting opposition Mongolian People's Party into the State Grand Khural (parliament) in a landslide victory.

The party took 85% of the seats in the parliament, defeating main rival the Democratic Party, which led a coalition from 2012-2016; about half of the elected candidates are first timers in the Khural. Voter turnout was above 72%, indicative of the electorate’s overwhelming discontent, and its apetite for change. The election period raised questions that stretch beyond the immediate economic crisis, making many reflect on the state of democracy, trust and public ethics.

Ger District dwellers' future in the balance

Mongolia was hailed as one of the world’s fastest growing economies by publications like The Economist and shortly after the country was hit by a severe economic crisis in 2012 fuelling social discontent. 

The country was hit by a severe economic crisis in 2012Approximately 22% of Mongolia’s three million people live below the national poverty line. A large number of those experiencing the hardest conditions are first generation migrants to Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar.

I spent election day with Altantsetseg*, a 32-year-old woman and her husband Ganbaatar, 39 and their family and friends to learn about an event that has caused much frustration and confusion over the past months. The couple was assigned to vote as part of Khoroolol, an administrative district in north-eastern Ulaanbaatar.

They live in an area made up of small houses and gers, round felt dwellings, which lend their name to the informal settlements that surrround Ulaanbaatar. More than half of the capital’s 1.4 million inhabitants live in areas, which stretch far beyond the central social housing blocks, new apartment buildings and glass business towers in the main part of the city. There is no centralised water, sewage or heating systems in the slums, and overall infrastructure connections are often unreliable. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest and one of the most polluted capitals in the world during the winter months, as many households burn raw coal to heat their houses.

The years ahead will determine whether a whole new generation will grow up experiencing the same pollution, poverty and growing inequality. These are the stakes for voters like Altansetseg and Ganbaatar. 

From socialism to democracy

The turbulent economic setting in which the election took place has many causes. The country's economy is dependent on international demand for its copper, coal, gold. The majority of Mongolian exports go the Chinese market, and sluggish growth there has had a severe impact on Mongolian economy. Aubrey Menard reported on this for openDemocracy at the height of tensions in December 2015.

The Democratic Party is held largely responsible for the huge national debtMongolians largely hold the Democratic Party responsible for the country's huge national debt – and voters expressed their desire for an alternative at the polls. But the history of popular discontent stretches back beyond the recent economic crisis. Before the 1990 'democratic revolution', the Mongolian People's Party led the single-party Mongolian People’s Republic, aligning its governance with the Soviet Union. When the USSR began to crumble, massive protests caused the party’s politburo to step back, giving way to negotiations between the party, parliament and the protesters and paving the way for the constitution to be reformed and creating a framework for the current multi-party system. 

The Democratic Party formed out of 1990 revolution protesters and is, alongside the Mongolian People's Party, the most prominent of Mongolia's political parties. Although the people's party positions itself centre-left and the democrats centre-right, there are no significant ideological differences between the two. Over the past seven democratic elections Mongolians have mostly voted for the party that is in opposition. 

This year the people's party took 65 seats out of 76, leaving only nine for the democrats, one for the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and one for an independent candidate. The results came as a surprise as there had seemed to be a lot of support for smaller parties, individual candidates, and indeed the democrats. The elections this summer showed that Mongolia is not yet truly a multi-party democracy: of the 15 parties that were running only three made it to the parliament. And, it seems that a functional opposition will not be forthcoming.

The election system was changed in May from a partly proportionally representative model to first-past-the-post creating a disadvantage for smaller parties. Previously, changes to the election law were prohibited six months before the elections but this point was cut from the legislation in December 2015.

"Our salaries are among the lowest in the world"

I went to vote with Altantsetseg, Ganbaatar and their two young children and was kicked out of the room where voting took place – but not before seeing the impressively rigourous identitfication process, complete with fingerprint scanners and party observers. After the vote we returned to their house on the edge of the ger district. As we were cooking lunch and talking politics we were joined by Ganbaatar’s brothers and colleagues, who had also voted that morning. They had recently opened a metal workshop making elegant benches and garden swings in his courtyard.

They indicated that the main sources of pre-election tension were election law, negative campaigning and, unsurprisingly, contemporary anxieties over economic security. Many at our lunch party thought that there wasn’t enough information available in television and radio format about the 498 candidates who participated in the election. The main sources of information were leaflets about candidates that were left in post boxes and on doors. They had not received many leaflets because they’d rented out a billboard above their house as advertising space for candidates – convincing leafleteers that the household had already made up its mind. “We had to borrow the leaflets from others,” Altantsetseg laughed.

Both Altantsetseg and Ganbaatar voted for the previous prime minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg of the democrats in the hope of seeing change and innovation. “"Everyone seems to put something in their pocket when in power..."Everyone seems to put something in their pocket when in power, but Saikhanbileg actually also seems to do something,” Altantsetseg explained. In Ganbaatar’s opinion this is linked to the similar type of ‘double deel’ (traditional Mongolian clothing) politics in both parties, referring to the private sector interests of many serving members. “One family is often split between two parties. There are many examples, one brother in one, the other in another party, so that business can go on even if one party loses,” Ganbaatar explained. Facing this perennial problem, the new president has made fighting corruption a key policy aim.

Several of the men saw a lack of steady jobs as the main problem, and enthusiastically speculated about the potential boost that investment in industry could bring. “If there were three or four big factories, many people would get jobs,” said Ganbaatar’s younger brother, Otgonbayar. “While people say it’s very nice to have democracy, the reality is that [our] salaries are among the lowest in the world. He added that the government provides very minimal services to citizens: “Only paperwork, basic health services, such things. If someone’s baby is very sick, for example, it is your family’s problem or you need to look for help from international organisations.”

Mongolians...are worn out and frustrated by the politics of corruption and negative campaigningMongolians across the social spectrum seem worn out and frustrated by a politics of corruption and negative campaigning. People long for a change, responsibility and being able to trust the people they put forward to lead the country. Mandakh is in his early forties and works for private bank. After the results were revealed, he said he was confident that things would get better. “Once [the] economy is fine, everything is good,” he said. “I’m quite happy with the results, because the economy will definitely improve. Also, this party said they won’t raise any taxes on citizens.”

 “The main reason why people voted for the Mongolian People's Party, from my point of view, is because the economy collapsed under this party," Mandakh said. "And it can collapse, right...we all know that gold, copper, coal prices change, can get so cheap...people can understand that." But, he added that people felt the prime minister may have been corrupt and were "insulted".

Mandakh also supported the MPP because of its cadre of highly educated and professionally experienced people – compared to what he ridiculed as the unprofessionalism and buffoonery of the democrats. “When such people lead the country, it is no surprise that the country is in huge debts,” he added.

Curiously, the Mongolian People's Party's long past is not necessarily a negative factor for the electorate. Terrence Edwards, a reporter based in Ulaanbaatar, suggests that the it is structurally much stronger than the chaotic democrats, who struggle to unite behind their policies. Although people's party is seen by some as a link to Mongolia's socialist past of stagnant governance and underhand tactics, it is seen by others as the only option ‘to get things done’.

At the end of our exchange, Mandakh opined that most acute problem in Mongolian society is that there is no “responsibility" –  an opinion that I heard being discussed over and over again by people of all political views and economic backgrounds. “Mongolia is a small country, almost everyone knows each other through someone. If there is some wrongdoing, and if they get punished, they will find someone to stop from the punishment from being enforced. This system is not working,” he added.

* All names of the interviewees have been changed at their request

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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