By Julian Dierkes
Kh Battulga has been elected president. That means the dominance of the president’s office by the DP will continue another four years past Ts Elbegdorj’s two terms. But what kind of president will Battulga be?
While the presidency holds few actual executive or legislative powers, it is an important symbolic role that can set the tone for Mongolian politics. This is especially true when the president has to find some way to work with a government from the opposite party, as will be the case for Battulga for at least three years of his presidency.
This symbolic power means that the presidency does play a potentially central role in brining about change in two areas: corruption and political culture.
For corruption, the president can set the tone of a government that is serious about fighting corruption, but he can also be an example of “the fish rots from the head”, i.e. a corrupt president or even a president that is perceived to be corrupt, can compromise many other anti-corruption efforts.
But in combatting corruption, the president actually does wield some real power, for now. This largely comes through his role as head of the National Security Council, but also through control of the judiciary. That role we be crucial in coming months.
The other area where the symbolism of the actions and words of a head of state carry weight is in political culture. One of the greatest challenges to Mongolian democracy remains the fact that political parties are not defined by any kind of ideology or consistent stance on political questions. When Mongolians vote they are actually only choosing the people who will govern, but not the decisions that these people will make, at least not beyond those that are hinted at on an ad hoc basis in election platforms.
A president who engages on the substance of political challenges, rather than treating politics as a venue for battling personalities, could change the tone of debate.
In both of these areas, Battulga seems an unlikely champion of reform, but who knows?
Battulga in the Past
Battulga’s political past gives little hope for optimism in terms of corruption and more substantive political culture.
Battulga was a member of parliament from 2004 until 2016. During that time, he served as a minister twice, first from 2008-12 as Minister of Roads and Construction, then 2012-14 as Minister of Industry and Agriculture. It is this second mandate that has left some Mongolians with a bad taste in their mouth. At the time, Battulga was involved in the plans to expand railroad construction across Mongolia. Mongolian media continue to allege that US$280m of the construction funds allocated from proceeds of the Chinggis Bond “disappeared” in this context. Battulga has never responded in a substantive way to these allegations and the arrest of some of his associates on corruption charges are linked to these claims.
While Battulga has been prone to make pronouncements about various policy issues in the past, these have typically not been linked to a careful analysis of options and likely consequences, at least not an analysis that he has shared with the public.
Famously, former President Elbegdorj chided Battulga during his tenure as a minister for blatantly sinophobic statements, a moment that continues to haunt Battulga in the form of deep-seated Chinese insecurity vis-a-vis Battulga’s alleged dislike of Chinese economic investments.
In 2016, Battulga lost his parliamentary seat in very surprising fashion and it doesn’t seem a stretch to speculate that this electoral loss has coloured his outlook on politics. In the previous three parliaments, Battulga had seemed to “own” the province of Bayankhongor and treated it as a quasi-fiefdom. Not only did he attempt to bring projects and funding to Bayankhongor, but his influence also extended to aimag politics. One might describe Bayankhongor politics as a mess.
To me, it was unthinkable that Battulga would loose an election in Bayankhongor, especially with an electoral system in 2016 that was biased toward incumbents. Yet, he did. And by all accounts (though these are rumours and unproven allegations, as all discussions of electoral fraud and vote buying) it was MCS cash and a lot of ferrying of “grass-hoppers” that led to Battulga’s loss in the election. Not the lesson you would have wanted a president to have learned in the past if you have hopes that he might lead a fight against corruption and for more political debate. Sure enough, whether through tricks or otherwise, Bayankhongor returned among the strongest results for Battulga in the election where he otherwise swept Ulaanbaatar but collected fewer votes in the countryside.
Really, there are many elements in Battulga’s past political career that worry me that he harbours ambitions to play a “strong man” role in politics. Nothing in his career so far would suggest that he would turn into a genuine anti-corruption champion, or that he would embrace evidence-based policy-making or even debate about policy.
Battulga in the Campaign
Yet, in the election campaign, Battulga seemed to show a different side of his political persona.
Battulga’s role in the presidential campaign offers some hints at his capacity for political discipline.
I was taken by surprise entirely when the DP nominated Battulga. In part this was based on his past behaviour, but in part also on the electoral defeat in 2016. When I asked others why he and not R Amarjargal – who seemed to be the front runner – was nominated, the general response was that DP members expected Battulga to contribute his personal funds to campaign funding, something that Amarjargal would not be able to do.
But unlike the behaviour of a candidate who “bought” his nomination, Battulga managed to build a real campaign. He travelled throughout the country, formulated a presidential message of traditional patriotism, and either winged the TV debate very successfully, or had prepared extremely diligently.
More surprisingly yet, Battulga managed to unite the DP behind himself. Some very prominent politicians who have previously managed to stay out of the corruption rumour mill and have promoted substantive policy, most notably Ts Oyungerel perhaps, supported Battulga very publicly. At least up until 3 weeks after the election, she has not been “rewarded” with some kind of post in Battulga’s presidential office, as might have been expected if this was an entirely strategic decision by her. Clearly, she and other DP leaders must seen something in Battulga beyond actualized success in a campaign.
Battulga also mostly stayed “on message” during the campaign and the debate. There were reports early on in the campaign of some derogatory remarks towards China and foreign investors, but this was not a topic he pushed further or an element of the campaign that seemed to hold much sway.
Judging Battulga only on the basis of the presidential campaign gives some hope that there is a serious politician in that shell of artistry (I do love that silver-dotted black deel) and sambo thuggishness.
The coming months are likely to bring an ongoing battle between Battulga and the MPP government. That battle may vary somewhat, depending on leadership changes in the MPP that seem very likely. I suspect that the MPP will mobilize constitutional reform efforts to curtail presidential powers and that Battulga will fight back against those.
That fight and efforts to come to terms with cohabitation between the MPP government and the DP president will probably consume Mongolian politics through the Fall’s parliamentary session at least. Most likely, it will be an element in all political decisions and debates for the coming three years. Beyond some initial clarification of powers, this struggle will also most certainly be a distraction, as it has very little to do – at least directly – with the important decisions that Mongolians expect politicians to be making on crucial issues the country is facing. If leading politicians will be consumed with jurisdictional battles, who will address corruption, air pollution, ongoing questions around regulation of mining projects, inequality…?
One of my big concerns about this struggle is to what extent both sides are going to carry this struggle out in public through political debates that voters will be able to follow and judge by themselves. Or, will either or both sides choose to play dirty and use various judicial maneuvers that will reinforce the sense of a highly corrupt state, in a battle over political power for power’s sake or worse, for the sake of personal enrichment.
Most likely, Battulga’s presidency will bring mixed blessings. Outside of this grey area lie two possible extreme scenarios, with the pessimistic scenario, unfortunately, still seeming more likely at this point.
Battulga, the Godfather
This is the scary scenario in which Battulga takes too much inspiration from Mafia-like practices beyond his nickname, Genco.
In this scenario, Battulga
- might instrumentalize the judiciary for personal and partisan aims
- might torpedo the economic recovery by ill-thought-out statements about mining, mining policy and foreign investors
- might jeopardize Mongolia’s fiscal situation by antagonizing the Chinese government
- might grow frustrated with third neighbour governments’ suspicion or lack of response to him and turn toward authoritarian “partners” instead
- might give up on DP’s long-standing emphasis on democratization
As a consequence,
- the cancerous presence of corruption on Mongolia will continue or even grow
- Mongolians’ trust in democracy as a form of governance that gives them a voice in political decisions will decline
- politics will deteriorate further into partisan bickering
- Mongolia’s fiscal situation will grow even more perilous pushing revenue streams from Oyu Tolgoi and other projects even further into the future and thus jeopardizing Mongolians’ ultimate benefit from their resource wealth
This is an ugly scenario, but elements of such a scenario are not entirely unlikely at this point.
Battulga, the Good Father
This is the optimistic scenario in which Battulga grows into the office of a president who genuinely has the well-being and development of the nation and fellow Mongolians at heart and acts on this conviction.
In this scenario, Battulga
- might recognize the need for genuine anti-corruption efforts to start at the top
- might use the authority of the presidential office to not only ask questions about the political challenges that Mongolia is facing, but contribute to the building of capacity in the DP, in the government, in the media, in civil society to find answers to those questions
- might embrace Mongolia’s past foreign policy in all its elements
- might recognize that the only effective antidote to dirty and sneaky politics has to be an expansion of democracy
As a consequence,
- transparency provisions for officials and in official dealings will be strengthened and genuinely enforced
- Mongolia’s political culture is re-oriented toward substantive and analytical debate
- political parties will transform, new parties will arise
I imagine that you can hear the angels singing in the background or see the eternal blue sky smiling upon Mongolia, just as I can.
This scenario does not seem likely, even in elements, but Battulga’s independence from DP party politics suggests that the potential for a personal transformation at least exists. His July 24 call for repatriation of offshore funds suggests that there is a potential for leadership in this area.
A more detailed investigation of the so-called ₮60bil case has also been initiated via the Anti-Corruption agency.
I hope Pres. Battulga realizes some of this potential and wish him and Mongolia all the best!