What is at Stake in Mongolia’s Election?

Amid important elections and transitions taking place this year in different parts of the world, it is easy to overlook the parliamentary election to be held in Mongolia on June 28. On that day, the country will choose its next government in one of the most consequential elections in its recent history. Consequential because―in a country with a 30 percent poverty level―the new government will be asked to manage the unprecedented revenues expected from its mining wealth in such a way as to benefit the many, not the few. As experiences elsewhere have shown, bad governance and mining wealth have rarely been a good mix for the fortunes of a developing resource-rich country. In the coming years, the challenge for Mongolia’s newly elected leaders and the country as a whole will be to rise to the occasion and not squander the opportunity presented to bring prosperity to its citizens, strengthen the economic underpinning for a sustainable democracy, and consolidate its international status.

The gravest danger to Mongolia’s brighter prospects comes, sadly, from corruption. This threat to democracy did not suddenly emerge with the arrest of a former president (later charged with corruption) in April 2012. Already back in August 2005, an Assessment of Corruption in Mongolia, conducted on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) noted “the blurring of the line between the public and private sector brought about by an endemic and systemic conflict of interests at nearly all levels.” The report noted the existence of a spoils system, and limited political will and political leadership to implement reforms. This report was a comprehensive assessment with important recommendations that should have triggered alarms. But in the absence of political will subsequent attempts to tame corruption, such as the creation of an anti-corruption agency and passage of a relevant legislation, did not yield the desired results. Politics was allowed to be dominated by interests seeking to attain personal gains, and the culture of permissiveness toward corruption became the hallmark of the 2000s. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for Mongolia stood at 4.3 in 1999, went down to 3.0 by 2004, and down further to 2.7 by 2009. It has stayed there since. (The CPI is measured on a scale of ten to one; the higher the score the cleaner the country. In 2011 the top scorer was New Zealand at 9.5, Somalia and North Korea shared the lowest score of 1).

Concerns in Mongolia for democratic erosion due to pervasive corruption have long predated the recent efforts by some Western media to portray Mongolia as a dictatorship in the making by linking the arrest and the pending trial of a former head of state to the fate of democracy in Mongolia. A number of studies, surveys, and monitoring activities have previously been conducted on corruption, but the public continues to ask: Are the leaders listening? Are they acting? Concerns about democracy were also raised in the wake of the excessive reaction, largely under-reported, to post-election protests in 2008 when―in a stark reminder of the years of communism―four people were shot dead, and hundreds were arrested and convicted in an unfortunate declaration of a state of emergency. If the new government does not address these concerns about democratic erosion and begin to uproot the long-seated culture of tolerance toward corruption, then it will be difficult to ensure economic equity for the population and lay the foundations for a stable and lasting democracy. The challenge for the next government will be to restore public trust in government and to focus on such serious issues as poverty and the income gap, environmental degradation, urban mismanagement, poor infrastructure, and corruption which have kept piling up while the incumbent government was talking up IPOs and growth figures, and handing out cash to the impoverished populace. The past four years could certainly have been put to better use by addressing the governance and infrastructure shortcomings that may hold back investors. The new government will therefore have work cut out for it to restore investor confidence as well.

The element of proportionality introduced last year into the electoral system (which previously was based on first-past-the-post voting) may result in more seats in parliament for smaller parties, but the contest will essentially be between the two major parties, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). In the past four years, however, instead developing solutions, these two parties have been a major part of the problems noted above.

The DP, once a force for change, has been losing its vitality through self-inflicted wounds, including joining in coalition governments with the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP, renamed as the MPP in 2011, after removing the word “revolutionary” from its name). The first such government, formed in 2004, was forced by an almost split election outcome and did not last long. The second, in 2008, has caused serious damage to the DP’s reputation as the “democrats.” The decision to form a coalition government was explained by the two parties as the result of a desire to “bring the country together” after the tragedy of 2008 and to create an enabling political environment for negotiations with foreign investors on important mining projects. What resulted, however, was an almost complete loss of government accountability, absence of political checks and balances, and further entrenchment of corruption. Instead of bringing the country together, this arrangement led to overlooked delays in investigating the 2008 killings which still remain an issue in the 2012 campaign. Investment agreements in the mining sector, hurriedly concluded by the coalition government, continue to provide fodder for political populism. The coalition government was conspicuously silent on corruption and government ineffectiveness, allowing serious governance deficiencies to accumulate and fester, unchecked. This made the two parties into easy targets for populist attacks.

The DP’s anemic posture has recently been challenged by a number of its younger leaders who have fought to restore the party’s original identity as a champion of political pluralism. They have initiated a Conflict of Interest Law which came into effect this past May and should be critical in addressing political corruption. Earlier this year the DP left the coalition government citing predictable tensions and disagreements but also acknowledging the reality of a coming election. It is to be hoped that the DP will finally get its act together and deliver on its promise to promote integrity within its ranks, and clean up the politics of corruption and the economics of blanket cash handouts.

The MPP built its electoral fortunes on name recognition after the demise of communism in the early 1990s; it had been the ruling party during Mongolia’s one-party communist era (1921-1990). Even after removing the word “revolutionary” from its name, it continues to claim the year of the Bolshevik takeover in Mongolia as its birth year. The MPP’s perceived electoral invincibility and the veneer of respectability conferred by its link to a 90-year old name have attracted some unscrupulous people who have used it as a vehicle for personal enrichment. The MPP’s dependence on an ownership of history rather than on a political credibility built on its own merits remains its major vulnerability. This was highlighted last year when the party’s old name, MPRP, was appropriated by a new party formed by its former chairman, thus causing infighting within the MPP’s ranks amid competing loyalties and possibly splitting their votes in the coming election. It is to be hoped that the MPP will find the courage to address the ambiguity of its situation and attempt to forge a new identity for itself that is more in tune with the country’s new realities. By doing so, it will have contributed in a major way to bringing closure to the country’s communist past.

The two major parties both, therefore, have to take a long, hard look at their respective situations and shake off the fog in which they have been engulfed for the past four years. (Fittingly, the combination of their respective acronyms means “fog” in the Mongolian language.) If recent polls hold, the DP and MPP will probably win the largest share of seats in the next parliament, but they should be aware that the country cannot afford another four years of business as usual.

The other parties running in the election have been minor players. One of them, however, the Civic Will-Green Party, has been a pioneering voice on anti-corruption issues. A coalition of parties, broken away from the two larger parties and led by a former president of Mongolia, is running on a populist platform based on promises to revise the major mining deals and redistribute wealth. A recent poll has suggested an increase in the coalition’s popularity.

In the early 1990s, Mongolia was frequently referred to as an “unlikely place” for democracy to emerge. Democracy prevailed in post-Cold War Mongolia because it was willed into reality despite the harsh economic environment faced by a formerly socialist economy devoid of its major partner. It also benefited from the generous support of developed democracies. It is now time for Mongolian leaders to once again demonstrate clear vision and strong will in order to consolidate the progress made so far and correct the existing deficiencies. The country’s economic prospects look far more promising this time around, and should be propitious for building the economic foundations for a sustainable democracy.