Untold Blogpost 5: “3D Printing Makes Prosthetics Easier and Brings it Closer”

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Our guest is a young engineer, Mandakhnaran, who makes 3D-printed arms for children. It strikes us that there are very few people who know about the 3D-printable prosthetic devices in town.

Mandakhnaran graduated from the New Mongol Institute of Technology and now he works as a mechanical engineer. In 2019, he was inspired to create an arm for a child using the 3D printing technology. This led him to study more about 3D-printed prosthetics – the technology, materials, and international practices. Mandakhnaran made his first 3D-printed arm for a little boy – which the young engineer created himself and, of course, the boy and his parents were happy. We are grateful to Mandakhnaran for taking time off from his busy schedule to explain the basics of 3D prosthetics.

Photo: Working on the hand design (with the permission of Mandakhnaran)

The 3D Prosthetics

To print an arm prosthesis, you would need a digitally simulated model, a 3D printer, and ABS filament or thermoplastic. There are three types of filament: CPE – expensive, high-quality, ABS – moderately priced, commonly used, and PLA – the cheapest, less durable. After taking the measures for an arm or leg to be attached, you use the computer graphics to design the model (known as 3D modelling). It would take a day or two, and then the actual printing could be done in two days. Since it is made of plastic, any type of cleaning product can be used. Depending on the type of plastic (CPE, ABS, or PLA), it would last over at least six months. And you can replace or fix any broken parts anytime.

Photo: Designing the arm (with the permission of Mandakhnaran)

Comparison with Other Available Options

There are two options for people needing artificial limbs. One is the prostheses factories. They use the traditional methods and materials. It would cost around 1,000 – 1,400 USD. They are sturdy, meaning they are heavy and expensive to replace or repair. The other option is ordering the pre-produced resin prostheses from China. It would cost 160 USD. One needs to order and wait for at least two weeks for the delivery. Once ordered, changes cannot be made to the order. Because of its material, it is smelly and produced in only few colours. Mongolian prostheses factories find it difficult to manufacture prostheses for children because they grow fast, and their materials are quite heavy for children. Therefore, it would be costly for parents to change their prosthesis as they grow.

3D Prosthetics Better Choice

Mandakhnaran argues that there are three advantages with the 3D-printed arms. For one, it is reasonably priced, since its cost varies from 50 to 300 USD depending on the type of materials. Second, it will take 3-5 days and it could be partly repaired immediately. Third, you have options. He recalls one of his clients, a boy who got an ugly coloured arm prosthesis from China. So, he was ashamed of the appearance and smell of his prosthetic arm. This brought him down and he lost confidence. When Mandakhnaran was working with him to select the design and colour of his new arm, the boy said that he wanted a robot arm. With this new arm, his spirit was uplifted, and he is now happy to show his arm to his classmates. So, with the 3D-printed arm, you can select the design of your arm. When Mandakhnaran mentioned that we can attach more gadgets to it, the movie ‘Inspector Gadget’ came to my mind.

It was touching to hear that one boy drew a big “A” letter with his new arm – that made him, his parents, and Mandakhnaran so happy. Although that boy cannot draw a perfect little “A”, he apparently inspired Mandakhnaran – who now thinks about adding more gadgets. Several times, Mandakhnaran pointed out that he is ready to make 3D-printable prosthetic devices for anyone who needed. It seemed to me, this young engineer needs a challenge to push him to make discoveries. He participated in a start-up competition with his innovation. Even though the judges agreed on the 3D-printed arm being interesting, they all concluded that it is less profitable. Against this mindset, Mandakhnaran is determined to help children and people who need prosthetic devices.

Photo: 3D arm (with the permission of Mandakhnaran)

Positive Takeaways from His Japanese Experience

We need to talk to people with disabilities and they are nice people, Mandakhnaran highlighted. He studied in Japan for his fifth and sixth grade. In his class, there was a student who lost both his arms and legs. Soon, he realized there were children with disabilities also included in other classes. Since these students studied together with the disabled student from grade one, they all knew each other very well and treated each other with respect. Like all earlier guests, Mandakhnaran explains the importance of an inclusive education environment for all.

Impact of Covid-19

Our pandemic related question gave another opportunity for our guest to highlight advantage of the 3D printing technology. If parents could take the exact measures, they would not need to come by in order to get the artificial limb. All could be done and delivered in distance during the pandemic. If someone requires getting a part of the 3D-printed arm, it could be done without seeing each other.

If the government or private businesses supported Mandakhnaran, he would help more children – uplifting their spirit. He did not hide the fact that he spent ten days to make his first 3D-printed arm because it was all new for him. Moreover, he was using the institute’s only 3D printer, which was quite outdated. But a long-awaited Iron Man arm made his client happy and, for sure, we know he was showing off his Iron Man hand to his friends. When Sainbuyan and I were debating whether to invite Mandakhnaran as our guest, a good, old friend doctor of mine said – ‘It is a miracle, if someone makes a 3D-printed arm in Mongolia’ and explained the challenges of people with amputations of extremities. We do not know at the moment, but wholeheartedly believe that we need to support this young Mongolian mechanical engineer’s passion and dream of helping people with disabilities.

Photo: He also made a Mongolian Ironman with 3D printing (with the permission of Mandakhnaran)

The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia.

Posted in Education, People with Disabilities, Podcast, Younger Mongolians | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: An Election with Handpicked Candidates?

By Max Duckstein

On May 6, the election commission confirmed the receipt of the third and last candidate for the upcoming presidential elections: S Erdene. In the hours before, the deputies of his own party urged the commission not to accept his documents, resorting even to starting a hunger strike on Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbataar Square. The now culminating conflict is already swelling for months and not only threatens Mongolia’s biggest opposition party but also the credibility of its election system.

Reforms in the Democratic Party

After losing the parliamentary elections in June, the then-chairman of the Democratic Party Erdene had to resign according to the party’s statutes. His deputy and former General Secretary Ts Tuvaan agreed to lead the party until a new chairman would be elected. Together with a group of upcoming young politicians like P Nurzed, they managed to lead the party to relative success in the local elections shortly afterward. As a next step, the provisional leadership planned to fundamentally revise the party statutes. The new statutes were to be adopted at a party congress and new leadership elected at the same time. However, plans for a party congress were halted as a result of the first-time local outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in mid-November 2020 and the subsequent lockdown.

Since the old party constitution requires internal elections after the resignation of the chairman, the new leadership around Tuvaan came under increasing pressure to pass its planned party reform. On December 7, they finally managed to pass the reforms digitally. Around that time Erdene started to appear more often in public again, criticizing the new leadership and the sitting president for his supposed influence on the party. It is believed that Erdene holds a longstanding grudge against Pres Kh Battulga, blaming him for the lost parliamentary elections and his subsequent downfall. His sudden resurgence after months of silence surprised many inside the DP nonetheless, after he had initially vowed to not interfere with the rebuilding of the party after the election defeat. Soon thereafter Erdene made public statements that a DP under his leadership would not nominate president Battulga again, raising suspicions that this was the reason behind his comeback. Mongolian election law states that each party represented in parliament is allowed to nominate only one candidate for the presidential elections. A candidate not nominated by a party with at least one seat in parliament is barred from registering.

A conveniently daring exploit

On December 25, 2020, the former party chairman pulled off a coup that has not been fully illuminated to this day: He convinced the Mongolian registration authority to issue a new stamp for the DP to him. With the stamp comes the ability to sign documents for the party and represent it legally. Why the central registration authority provided him with a new stamp and subsequently revoked the one that was held by Tuvaan remains to be explained till today. While more cautious observers guessed that he pretended the old stamp was lost, some saw this as a starting point for a plot to split the country’s largest opposition party before the upcoming presidential elections. Although it is hard to explain how Erdene could have pretended to lose a stamp he officially handed over to Tuvaan months ago.

Besides carrying the official stamp, the registration of new leadership and new statues at the Supreme Court are required under the Mongolian party law. To the surprise of the new leadership, the court rejected the registration on January 14. They argued that the COVID-induced digital format of the party congress was not explicitly envisaged under the old party statutes. Now possessing the newly registered party stamp, Erdene petitioned the court to be registered as chairman again. However, the Supreme Court denied this as well, since the old party statutes required the chairman to step down after losing national elections. The court’s decisions left the party in limbo unable to move forward in any direction. In the meantime, both stamps are regarded as not legitimate by the courts. Solving this dispute with judicial means will take months. To overcome at least some of the uncertainty, both camps announced internal elections on March 28, calling more than 200,000 members to vote. While the DP around Tuvaan called on members to fill out ballots by hand in their home provinces, Erdene now tried his hand at conducting a digital membership vote resulting in the election of the only locally known 42-old M Tulgat. To prevent another legal setback, the DP led by Tuvaan held an additional in-person party congress on April 3: In eastern Ulaanbaatar, 1,200 delegates gathered in an open-air parking lot to confirm the election of their new party head Ts Tsogtgerel, a newly elected member of parliament from Uvs.

Reaching a dead-end

Following the old party statutes, both Erdene and the DP had to elect a candidate for the presidential elections on June 9. The sitting president Battulga did not appear on the election ballots since the Supreme Court controversially ruled him out for a second term on April 16. Finally, on May 1 Tuvan announced that N Altankhuyag won the internal competition. A former DP prime minister and the only current member of parliament that was elected as an independent, campaigning for an equal and fair distribution of Mongolia’s natural resources. Simultaneously, Erdene was announced as the surprise winner of his own elections, resulting in the other candidates, all members of parliament, and nearly all local DP chapters distancing themselves from him.

While the ongoing legal disputes over legitimacy did not lead to any substantial problems until this point, the closing deadline for the parties to submit their candidates to the central election commission lead to a change. The head of the commission, a close friend of the MPP’s presidential candidate U Khurelsukh, was appointed by the MPP government. Following Mongolian law, the election commission required the DP to submit only one candidate until 6 pm on May 5. Although they extended their deadline until midnight, neither Altankhuyag nor Erdene withdrew their documents. Ultimately, the commission decided to only accept Erdene’s documents. They claimed that the last legally undisputed change in leadership in the DP was the 2017 election of Erdene, leaving parliamentarians in disbelief. Five of them started a hunger strike on the central Sukhbaatar Square the same night that still lasts on May 6 protesting the decision. The police stopped their supporters from handing them blankets to protect them during the night and some journalists were barred from entering the square.

An election campaign with convenient opponents

While it is easy to dismiss all of this as internal problems of the notoriously quarrelling DP, it poses more serious questions regarding the vulnerability of the Mongolian electoral process. Keeping in mind that the initial re-issuance of a stamp to Erdene by the central registration authority seems to have been illegitimate, there was no way for the DP to avoid this situation. Submitting the country’s largest opposition party to endless court battles following a seemingly faulty decision by the central registration authority that ends in not registering their elected candidate for the formally highest position in the state has uncomfortable connotations.

After the Mongolian Revolutionary People’s Party recently merged with the governing Mongolian People’s Party, allegedly in exchange for three ministries, there are only two opposition parties left in Mongolia’s parliament that could nominate a presidential candidate. The Democratic Party’s ability to do so was now crippled twice after the recent events and barring the popular sitting president Battulga from standing as a candidate. If the Khun party’s candidate D Enkhbat will succeed to gather the anti-MPP vote remains at least questionable after the recent conflicts between the DP and the Khun party.

Mistakes can happen in any bureaucracy. In Mongolia, Khurelsukh seems always to profit politically from them though. This seems especially convenient now as his own image is damaged in public opinion. Following his resignation as prime minister using a minor protest as an excuse, many distrust his ability to lead the country through difficult times. Restricting the major opposition party of the country twice in the attempt to choose a presidential candidate and forcing a weakened and ostracized candidate on them seems more than timely. Khurelsukh will certainly enjoy an unusually easy campaign start this month.

About Max Duckstein

Max Duckstein is Senior Policy Analyst at the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s office in Mongolia. He obtained his Master’s degree (M.A.) in Sociology at Bielefeld University. As a scholarship holder of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) he spent a semester in Russia as visiting researcher at Saint Petersburg State University.

Posted in Democratic Party, Max Duckstein, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2021 | Leave a comment

Presidential Election Candidates: Initial Outlook

By Julian Dierkes

Before the presidential election campaign gets started in earnest, I want to offer my sense of the candidates, issues, and some thoughts about possible outcomes.

Candidates have now been nominated. In one of the great surprises of the political year (not!), the MPP nominated U Khurelsukh, frm PM and, I assume given the requirement for candidates not to be members of parties, frm party chair. In yet another odd twist of the self-destructive trajectory of the DP, it, or at least some relevant part of it, seems to have nominated N Altankhuyag, frm PM and frm party chair. Though, wait, maybe not?Finally, XYH nominated D Enkhbat, entrepreneur and frm MP for then-Civil Will Party.

Main Dynamic: Anti-MPP Vote and Run-Off

I think that this election will turn entirely on how strong the desire among voters is to elect a non-MPP candidate for balance, and how that dynamic will play out in a three-way race.

We only need to turn to the 2017 election as an example of the desire of Mongolian voters to see some balance in the highest offices. With Marissa Smith, I recently wrote about this trepidation about one-party domination in the context of Pres Battulga’s attempt to ban the MPP. Inadvertently, Battulga’s seemingly desperate attempt to cling to power or have a chance to be re-elected will have sharpened the case for a non-MPP president in some voters’ mind.

But, how will this play out in a three-way race? The 2017 election had brought a run-off for the first time even though there had been other elections with more than two candidates. For example, in the 2013 election N Udval’s MPRP candidacy did not force incumbent Ts Elbegdorj into a run-off though he only won with a slight margin.

[Sidenotes: Yes, a woman has been a candidate for president recently, either supporting or questioning the frequently-heard comment that “Mongolians will not vote for a woman”. That common view is contrasted to me (as a German) by the sense that Germans find it hard to imagine a male chancellor at the moment. Also, note the interesting coincidence that Udval had previously been a Minister of Health, a role that brings much more attention with it in pandemic times, has often been seen as a “feminine” ministry, though, surprise, in critical times, we are back to a male Min of Health. Finally, note that Mendee and I had a back and forth about the likelihood of a run-off in 2013: Me IMendeeMe II.]

First prediction: Khurelsukh will win a plurality, but not a majority of votes in the first round, thus forcing a run-off.

The MPP can count on its rural and committed voter base to give Khurelsukh a lot of votes, but if anything, it seems like trepidation about the dominance of one party has grown since 2017, so it seems like a majority is unlikely. This is odd, in some ways, of course, as the electorate certainly endorsed the MPP and then-PM Khurelsukh in the 2020 parliamentary election.

Will COVID Play a Significant Role?

It is odd to think that a global pandemic, recently high infections in Mongolia, even outside of Ulaanbaatar, and the government response to it will not be a dominant driver in the election. Yes, it will be present as a topic, but perhaps not as much as I would have expected even a month ago or so. Why? Khurelsukh’s resignation as PM in January seemed driven by electoral calculations, involving the fear of a less-than-stellar record on fighting COVID. More oddities in that since a) Khurelsukh’s 2020 election victory was interpreted as partly due to the effective COVID response of his government, and b) if the electoral calculus was a strong driver, why did PM L Oyun-Erdene not react more forcefully to rising infection rates, even recognizing the supposed lockdown fatigue that may or may not have been a widespread sentiment.

But, infection rates and vaccine shipments can change massively in the five weeks of the campaign. So, this could really backfire on Khurelsukh if infection rates remain high and/or there are continued delays in vaccine shipments. Or, a decline in infections and/or rise in vaccinations could be a boost to his candidacy. Either way, I suspect that Khurelsukh will emphasize his COVID response much less than I would have thought months ago while other candidates may want to raise this more loudly.

And, hopefully, public health conditions will be such that an election (campaign) will be possible roughly as it was last year, i.e. physically distanced campaigning and lots of distancing measures for the election, perhaps even enabling mobile voting for quarantined individuals.

Second prediction, a bit lame: The impact of COVID will depend on … COVID, that is infection and/or vaccination rates. In all likelihood, COVID will not be eradicated nor is there a public health catastrophe coming (I hope), so the impact will perhaps be muted.

Candidates

Khurelsukh

Khurelsukh himself? Very attractive to the party faithful, I assume. And thus possibly also attractive to a good number of Enkhbayar/MPRP supporters many of whom “turned” on their “roots” in 2017 by voting for S Ganbaatar. If MPRP support is still somewhere around 10% nationwide and if I am correct in guessing that almost all of that support might vote for Khurelsukh, maybe that is the only path to a majority in the first round.

What else does Khurelsukh offer? Generational change in the MPP, competent management as PM. He certainly thinks of himself as a leader, though he does not express that in any policy ambitions that I am aware of. Perhaps a strong suit for a presidential candidate, i.e. he is probably good at looking presidential. My sense that he would continue to weaken Mongolia’s international relations (as Pres Battulga has) for being very much focused on Mongolia is more likely to be attractive to his supporters than important or unattractive to any swing voters.

Altankhuyag

I am assuming here that his nomination will stand despite the DP-internal, um, shenanigans.

Obviously, he is very familiar to voters. As far as I can tell, considering his long presence in politics he is relatively untainted by (corruption) scandals. But if I am right that the election will turn on anti-MPP-dominance sentiment, can he galvanize that sentiment and motivate swing voters to a) vote at all, and b) vote for him? I do not have a strong sense of how Altankhuyag is perceived in public.

Enkhbat

Disclosure: I invited Enkhbat to a November 2008 conference on contemporary Mongolia (which was the basis for the edited volume, Change in Democratic Mongolia – Social Relations, Health, Pastoralism, and Mining), so I have met him personally and have communicated with him in the past.

Again, some oddities particularly in XYH’s nomination of Enkhbat who, after all, has been a member of parliament for the Civil Will Party (now, Civil Will Green Party) and who has not really been involved in XYH, as far as I can tell. However, he is clearly sympatico to much of what XYH stands for, i.e. a different kind of politics, more educated, perhaps more liberal (in an economic sense, though not neo-liberal, I think, i.e. support for entrepreneurs, but not a religious belief in markets as a policy panacea).

I do think that he will be able to galvanize much of the urban anti-MPP vote. For example, many of the supporters of the “blank ballot” movement in 2017 are likely to vote for him as support of a different-from-MAHAH political force. But, perhaps I overestimate the numbers of those people as I, along with many others, had expected more XYH candidates to win seats in last year’s parliamentary election.

I do not have a strong sense of how he is perceived by the public, though his past political office and his various entrepreneurial activities make him prominent enough that he is well-known.

Third prediction: Candidates’ personal qualifications will be over-shadowed by the anyone-but-the-MPP dynamic.

Policy

The president’s political powers are quite limited. There are really only three policy domains where the president has significant direct influence, largely through participation in appointments: foreign policy, judiciary, and the military.

Given these limits, past presidential campaigns have not been strong on policy. And neither have presidencies. Can anyone name a successful policy ambition that Pres. Battulga has been able to carry out. Where there even any discernible initiatives other than populist ploys for public enthusiasm like the death penalty or various pay-outs?

Along these lines I suspect no concrete policy proposals or discussions from MPP or DP candidates. Potentially, Enkhbat could be different in this regard as he may credibly talk about different policies. Yet, the strength of his claims would come in areas like economic policy where the presidency brings symbolic power at best.

The one area of policy that has been of great concern to voters (and this observer) is the independence of the judiciary and – closely related – anti-corruption efforts. In this area, Enkhbat’s independence and lack of a strong party power base, as well as his own trajectory as an entrepreneur not firmly aligned with any conglomerates as far as I know, he may have a lot of credibility with all those voters who are concerned about this issue. Yes, Khurelsukh and Altankhuyag will talk a lot about anti-corruption policies, but they have no discernible track record in these efforts and neither does either of their parties for the past decade.

Fourth prediction: Even if it is unclear how determinant of a vote this may be, anti-corruption is the single topic where policy might matter, but only if Enkhbat can claim the anti-corruption mantel effectively.

Posted in Democracy, Democratic Party, Elections, Mongolian People's Party, National Labor Party, Politics, Presidential 2021 | Tagged | Leave a comment

Untold Blogpost 4: “Introducing A New Idea: Independent Livelihood”

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Our guest is Undrakhbayar, the founder and director of Tugeemel Hugjil (Universal Progress MILC), the first-ever Center for Independent Living for people with disabilities in Mongolia. As a result of a doctor’s failure to perform a spinal tab (extraction of spinal fluid), he lost his ability to walk. It turned his life upside down. He was shocked, depressed, frustrated, and even thought of suicide.

Listen to our Podcast “Untold: The Hidden Stories of Persons with Disabilities in Mongolia” (in Mongolian) 

One day, his sister asked him to memorize hiragana, a Japanese alphabet, instead of doing nothing. Not long after, he ran into elder Japanese tourists – they happened to be staying at the Takhilt rehabilitation resort. So, he tried to communicate with them in Japanese. It was the moment, he decided to go back to university to learn Japanese. After graduating from university with a Japanese language degree, he got the Japanese scholarship for people with disabilities in the Asian Pacific Region. Living and studying a year in Japan was an eye-opening experience for him and inspired him to introduce an entirely new concept – Independent Living – in Mongolia to give the disabled people hope. His center has 18 staff members and 600 members.

Photo: Mr. Undrakhbayar.Ch, Founder and Director of ‘Universal Progress’ MILC (all the images in the article are used with permission by Undrakhbayar)

Going to Schools

Before this incident, he had been dreaming of becoming a history and archeology teacher. Then, he took a year off to earn some money to pay his tuition, but the tragedy happened, and he did not want to go out. After meeting the Japanese elder lady at the resort, she sent him money to get some treatment. And his mom told him to continue studying Japanese, at least, to write a thank you letter to the Japanese lady. So, he started studying Japanese at the language center. But a teacher advised him to study at the university instead of wasting time and money at the center. Soon, he joined Ireedui, a Japanese Language Institute. Initially it was hard, he said. He lived in a five-story building without lift. His dad was working so hard to get some money to pay his taxi and his mom used to wait for him outside of the school with a glass, since the institute did not have an accessible washroom. Once he got to know his classmates, things got much better – he smiled and shared funny stories. He made friends and met his future spouse at the school. Later, in 2013, he studied for a master’s degree at the University of Finance and Economics. And he was thankful to the university administration that made quick improvements in terms of wheelchair entrance and washroom accessibility.  

Dealing with Mental Hardship – Peer Counselling

The most touching part of the podcast was about the mental situation-the absence of psychological counselling for both the disabled person and their close ones. Many people could not accept the fact, express their frustration, and became traumatized. Looking back, Undrakhbayar thinks that if there had just been someone who would have told him that he will never walk again, and that he now needed to learn how to live with a wheelchair, it would all have been much easier for him. There was no one who could give him practical advice on how to sit in a wheelchair, how to transfer to a toilet seat, or how to maneuver. All steps were unknown and only caused stress and frustration. If there had been peer-counselling by a disabled person for each step, it would have been extremely helpful. Or, there could have been a psychologist or a social worker to help him go through this difficult transitioning period. In Mongolia, he said, doctors often give false hope – along the lines of ‘if you try, you might walk again’. But, for many, this causes unnecessary efforts, a waste of time and money to achieve something impossible. So, doctors should be truthful and if they cannot be, they at least should refer to someone who went through all this trauma and hardship and could provide peer-counselling. In Japan, for example, medical centers let disabled people immediately practice sports (basketball, ski, etc.) to get them mentally distracted, to help them adjust to their wheelchairs, and to develop their muscles. The National Traumatology and Orthopedics Research Center needs to set up a peer-counselling service, Undrakhbayar argues, this would help many people to get adjusted quicker and relieve their mental pains. Yes, the mental hardship and absence of a support system was highlighted by all our earlier guests. Here, Undrakhbayar is proposing the most practical solution – peer counselling for all types of disabilities. As he said, there are many issues that he cannot discuss with his family or even doctors because they do not understand. The only person he would be willing to listen and talk to is a person who has the same disability and gender. 

Photo: Workshop of ‘Universal Progress’

Independent Living

Independent living is a totally new concept in Mongolia, where disabled people rely largely on their families. Just like in Japan, where it took years to change the state and public attitude, to establish a system supporting independent living, and to remove cultural and physical barriers for disabled people to participate in the social life. Undrakhbayar’s objectives are clearly laid out. They established the non-governmental organization to develop the concept and to educate government officials and people. Now they are working with families of three disabled persons to let them work independently. This creates a number of challenges to find good solutions. At the same time, Undrakhbayar’s team is introducing a personal assistant system for disabled people. The personal assistant will help disabled people to live independently and to participate in social activities. Since this is being done for the very first time in Mongolia, Undrakhbayar and his colleagues developed lectures, training materials, and rules and regulations. As he explains, first, they go around schools and universities to introduce the personal assistance program and then organize a two-day training (theory and practice) with interested people in order to certify them. Now they have 30 personal assistants and about 10 families which receive personal assistance services for their loved ones. This type of service is quite common internationally, Undrakhbayar said, we are working to localize the Japanese experience in Mongolia. But it requires a great deal of work. On one hand, they need to increase public awareness and help government officials understand the mutual benefits gained from the concept of independent living since independent living enables the disabled people to contribute to the development of the society. On the other hand, they need to prepare disabled people to live independently and to establish a system of personal assistants. The Independent Living project is heavily relying on international donor funding (e.g., international organizations, embassies, and developmental assistance). 

Photo: Mr. Undrakhbayar with his colleague Mr. Nyam-Ochir along with other members of Mongolian NGOs, participating in international conference at United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland

Covid-19 Impacts

Because of the pandemic, Tugeemel Hugjil cancelled the most wanted and awaited international event, which would bring its international partners from eight countries in the Asian Pacific Region. Undrakhbayar sighed, this could have become their capstone event for the 10th anniversary of Tugeemel Hugjil and, of course, their fight for promoting independent living. Unlike our earlier guests, Undrakhbayar appears to be highlighting the positive impacts of the pandemic. His staff has been learning lots of new technologies and programs on the internet. He has been conducting more meetings with international organizations and new partners. The pandemic allowed them to renovate their office and to improve the working environment. Otherwise, the office is always crowded and busy as they work with their members. And he does acknowledge that the pandemic has been very hard on their members because they could not participate in social activities.

Listening to Undrakhbayar’s conversation, it becomes clear that it has not been easy and took tremendous efforts to introduce the concept of independent living. If it had not been for Avirmed akh (brother), who is working for their non-governmental organization, Undrakhbayar cannot imagine that Tugeemel Hugjil would have become one of the influential non-governmental organizations for disabled people. There were many times, he wanted to give up. However, Avirmed supported him to stay on course and reach his dream of introducing independent living in Mongolia. The happiest moment is, as he describes, when he hears the noise, excitement, and team spirit in his office, and sees these mostly disabled employees who overcame their fears and frustration working together for a common good to make the society more inclusive for people with disabilities.

The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia.

Posted in Education, Health, Human Rights, Inequality, Mendee Jargalsaikhan, People with Disabilities, Podcast | Tagged | Leave a comment

More Presidential Election Speculation

By Julian Dierkes

If you have been reading our blog, you know that I cannot resist speculating about electoral chances and outcomes. That is even more speculative now, as I have been unable to travel to Mongolia since December 2019 with all the challenges that entails.

More seriously, election fever is in full swing, judging by public manifestations, so ten days before candidates have been nominated, I wanted to offer an update on my March speculation.

Note that my contacts in various parties have not been as forthcoming in sharing internal secrets or deliberations with me, so these musing remain lamentably uninformed by knowledge of internal debates or any polling that may be happening. They have also remained unaided by the above vodka bottle that I have been able to locate!

MPP Candidate Khurelsukh

Even more than a month ago, the presidential election seems Khurelsukh’s to lose. Some months ago, some of Pres Battulga’s statements and judicial actions seem to suggest that he was expecting Su Batbold to be the MPP’s candidate. I do not see any evidence of that.

How much will Khurelsukh be hurt by the rapid shooting up of the COVID infection rate? Oddly enough, his sudden resignation in January may have freed him from that association, reinforcing the sense at the time that his resignation was due to a presidential election calculus.

Even though Khurelsukh may thus disassociate himself from the COVID disaster, it will still reflect on him as he had been PM for the prior nine months, but the COVID successes of that time may ring somewhat hollow now.

My guess would be that Battulga’s accusations of militarization and pursuit of one-party dominance may hurt the MPP more than Khurelsukh personally. It might thus provoke more of an anti-MPP-dominance vote than an anti-Khurelsukh vote though the effect may be the same.

DP Candidate Candidates

Frankly, I cannot keep track of the different parts of the DP. At this point, I am not even entirely sure what body might be “entitled” to nominate a presidential candidate and whether that nomination will stand without court intervention.

At this point, given the court decision to confirm that Pres Battulga would not be allowed to run for re-election, and parliaments affirmation of that ruling, it seems quite unlikely to me that Battulga will be participating in the presidential election. By no means impossible and the fact that he might not participate will surely destabilize the outcome, but I currently do not see the path by which he regains access to the election legally, but even in terms of the DP’s nomination.

I do think that his accusations against the MPP will have strengthened some Mongolian’s trepidation about handing the MPP the presidency after being reelected in resounding fashion in last year’s parliamentary election. That trepidation might then turn out to be the deciding factor in the election and the deciding factor in terms of whom the DP might nominate and how that nomination might interact with the nomination of a candidate by XYH.

Mongolian voters’ trepidation about the dominance of a single party fuelled Battulga’s election win in 2017. I imagine that any strategic advice the DP would come up with would be to select a candidate as their nominee who is maximally different from Khurelsukh and can make some credible claim about being a reform candidate.

The cast of potential candidates speculated about above does not look like that strategic advice is running strong in the DP. The fact that all six of these candidates are quite familiar does not strike me as a good sign to portray any DP candidate as a strong alternative to Khurelsukh. S Erdene has been at the head of the DP for some time (before the current administrative split). I think that most Mongolians would chuckle if he portrayed himself as anything like a new, fresh force in Mongolian politics, or – as Marissa Smith reminded me – rely on that well-worn DP cliché of being the source of democracy in Mongolia. Instead, many might point to last year’s electoral defeat that was at least in part rooted in the DP’s (under Erdene) choice of a relatively well-known, some might say, tired cast of candidates that included some of the candidates speculated about above.

Bat-Uul? Democratic partisan and veteran of the 1990 revolution, but a reformer in 2021?

As Reddit user Bardal reminded me, Altankhuyag is sitting as an independent member of parliament, but was included in this listing on the assumption that he would be willing to return to the DP fold.

Amarjargal and Temuujin might have a slightly stronger claim in that regard in that they have been outsiders in their own party to some extent. Amarjargal may have been second choice behind Battulga in the 2017 nomination and would lay claim to economic expertise as his forte, something that could be parlayed into post-COVID necessity in an electoral campaign, though a president’s powers do not include any areas that have a direct impact on the economy. His appeal as an outside-insider may be relatively strong, but he was not elected in last year’s parliamentary election on the strength of that.

Erstwhile MP and Minister of Justice Temuujin would probably point to his (aborted) judicial reforms as an indication of his  desire to transform one aspect of the Mongolian polity that is essential and remains in need of reform, the judiciary. But he has also been active in politics for a long time.

I have a hard time with any of the above candidates of imagining that XYH might decide that these candidates are enough reform for their taste to refrain from nominating a candidate. That would suggest that candidates like these (longtime politicians with spotty records of representing any kind of significant alternative to the MPP) might well provoke a more daring nomination by XYN which would in turn likely produce a split of the opposition-against-Khurelsukh camp, although there was actually less evidence of such splits in last year’s parliamentary election than one might have expected.

That leaves Oyungerel as a possibility. The one aspect of her trajectory that I cannot understand and get over is her enthusiasm in her support for Battulga in 2017. What did she see in him that she decided to support so enthusiastically. My sense was that her enthusiasm was barely rivalled only by erstwhile Yokozuna Asashoryu.

But, as a woman, with her foreign education, and with her very serious toilet campaign, she does fit the bill of a reform candidate to some extent.

Enough to persuade XYH not to nominate their own candidate? That is entirely unclear to me.

XYH and MPRP?

I have no idea. There do not seem to be a lot of whispers about a XYH candidate which has prompted my thinking above that they might forego nominating someone who is unlikely to win, but will divide the vote. If the DP nominates an apparatchik, however, the temptation will be strong for XYH to spoil that nominee’s chances.

If you, dear reader, have views or knowledge of XYH discussions of a nominee, I would be delighted to hear them!

As usual there are some discussions that MPRP might re-merge with the MPP, though surely, some reinstatement of political chances for N Enkhbayar would have to be part of that. Why would the MPP? So that MPRP does not nominate a candidate? Arguably Ganbaatar’s campaign in 2017 was a fly in M Enkhbold’s and thus the then-MPP’s soup.

Other Predictions

Almost certainly, we will see some “secret photo” leaked in the next six weeks that will show a presidential candidate receiving an envelope from representatives of the Rev. Moon.

But note the date!

Posted in Democratic Party, Elections, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2021 | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Democracy in Danger? A Court Ruling with Serious Implications for Mongolia’s Future

By Johann Fuhrmann and Max Duckstein

The lead-up to the Mongolian presidential elections on June 9 is getting messier by the day. On April 16 the constitutional court ruled to bar the incumbent president Kh Battulga from running a second time for the position of head of state. The decision aroused opposition among the political opposition of the landlocked Asian country and led to an exchange of accusations between the president and the former socialist ruling party, the Mongolian People’s Party. But the decision comes with many implications and might put the political system in serious jeopardy.

A pragmatic president

Battulga was elected in 2017 as a candidate nominated by the largest Mongolian opposition party, the Democratic Party. During his campaign, he was regarded as a political outsider but gathered support among voters who were critical of placing more political power in the hands of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party and their unpopular candidate M Enkhbold. Although he campaigned on a platform of hawkish views on Chinese-Mongolian relations, his presidential agenda was shaped by ideas of careful balancing and further cautious rapprochement towards the People’s Republic. Especially a diplomatic gesture during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis earned him much international recognition: As a sign of good neighbourly relations, he organized the donation of 30,000 sheep from Mongolia to China. The neighbouring superpower returned the favour later by delivering large amounts of COVID-19 tests and vaccines.

A deeply political decision?

For his whole incumbency, Battulga has faced a Mongolian Peoples Party’s (MPP) supermajority in parliament. In 2019 they proposed a series of amendments to the constitution that would limit the president’s power to shift Mongolia’s semi-presidential system more in the direction of a parliamentary system, among other things. The most serious change to the position of the president under the new amendments is the limitation to a single six-year term instead of two four-year terms under Article 30.2. Originally these amendments were planned to include an adjunct grandfather clause. This would have stated that this section only enters into force in 2025. This would have guaranteed that the sitting president would be eligible to run for a second four-year term this year. Controversially, this clarifying clause was removed from the draft before its passage, creating uncertainty around the current president’s rights. Eventually, the modified amendments were passed just in time as the timeframe for passing them was closing rapidly allowing for the mandatory 6-month buffer between any constitutional changes and the next elections. This brought some preliminary closure to the painstakingly complex and many months-long political negotiating that preceded the passing, leaving one basic question in limbo, leaving the Constitutional Court to decide on the matter. However, the independence of the Court has been disputed in the past. The judges have been accused to rule in the favour of strong political actors, namely the MPP. This alone seriously taints the perceived legitimacy of the ruling in the eyes of many observers. In Mongolian social media, many have suspected a deeply political decision.

Checks and balances no more?

Now that the medium chamber of the court decided to bar the sitting president from running again, the decision must be ratified by the Mongolian parliament, the Great State Khural. But after shifting the parliamentary electoral system to a first-past-the-post system the MPP won again a supermajority in last year’s June elections while gathering “only” 44,8% of the popular vote. While the Democratic Party retained many seats in provincial assemblies during the subsequent local elections, they are faced with an overwhelming MPP majority of 81,6 % in the national parliament. This non-representative accumulation of seats by the MPP already poses a challenge to democratic principles that goes beyond the difference between the popular vote and the number of seats in most winner-takes-all systems in the world. Having such a non-representative supermajority modify constitutional amendments in a way that directly benefits them by making the right of the most popular politician at the time to run against them uncertain, seems at least like a questionable use of that legislative power. Battulga was ranked the most popular politician in the country in 2018 in the KAS / St. Maral Politbarometer. During his presidency, he was always ranked as the most or second-most popular politician who constantly enjoyed the trust of at least 1/3 of the population in the nationwide poll. These numbers are more impressive than they might seem at first glance since large parts of the population harbour a deep mistrust against the political class. The ambiguity that resulted from passing the amendments without a specific grandfather clause directly benefits MPP by eliminating another check in the legislative system of the country.

This is especially the case since U Khurelsukh, the prime minister at the time, has and had clear ambitions to become the next president of Mongolia. Using relatively small protests following a scandal in the health sector Khurelsukh stepped down as head of government right before the local escalation of the pandemic. Even as Khurelsukh was announcing his resignation at a press conference, the Standing Committee on State Structure was already meeting to give the necessary approval to his actions. In his speech at the parliamentary session that followed shortly thereafter, Khurelsukh accused President Battulga of instrumentalizing the protests for his own purposes and fomenting them unnecessarily. At the same time, the outgoing head of government stressed that he still had years ahead of him in politics. In subsequent speeches, members of the ruling party brought up the possibility of impeachment proceedings against the president. Although they have so far not followed up on these ultimate threats, the problematic nature of utilizing the sharpest judicial tools a democracy has to offer to achieve politically short- and midterm goals remains. Now, after the decision of the court, Khurelsukh’s chances of not having to run against a still popular incumbent increased significantly. Now, that many critics openly call his emotional resignation a rather mediocre masterclass in acting, the incumbent president would pose a more serious threat than ever to the former prime minister.

A political system in jeopardy?

Although this would be unorthodox, the parliament can still reject the ruling and return the decision to the court’s full chamber. This final verdict would not need to be ratified by the parliament. Of course, it is uncertain if the court’s full chamber would decide differently. But it would at least signify the parliament’s will to acknowledge the potentially undemocratic character of the events leading up to this situation. In a country where the trust in the independence of courts is certainly underwhelming and the electoral system assured a supermajority for the government for two consecutive terms, losing one more check on power seems by itself already potentially harmful enough. Undermining the democratic process by the parliament gladly accepting to ban one of the most promising candidates from running seems irritating for assuring people that checks and balances are still in place.

About Johann Fuhrmann and Max Duckstein

Johann Fuhrmann heads the office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Mongolia. Prior to that, he was Head of Growth and Innovation at the Economic Council (Wirtschaftsrat der CDU). As a scholarship holder of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation he obtained his Master’s degree (MSc.) in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

Max Duckstein is Senior Policy Analyst at the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s office in Mongolia. He obtained his Master’s degree (M.A.) in Sociology at Bielefeld University. As a scholarship holder of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) he spent a semester in Russia as visiting researcher at Saint Petersburg State University.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Democratic Party, Johann Fuhrmann, Judiciary, Law, Max Duckstein, Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2021 | Leave a comment

The Military, Populism, and Trepidation about Single-Party Rule

By Julian Dierkes and Marissa J. Smith

The constitutional amendments of Nov 2019 seemed to result from a bargain between Pres. Battulga and the MPP that would allow him to run for another term under the new six-year single term. This seemed to offer some chance that the lead-up to the election might be relatively orderly and that the focus would shift to nomination battles, especially within the DP.

So much for that hope…

As Marissa, Bulgan and I have described in The Diplomat, Pres Battulga issued a presidential decree banning the MPP on Apr 20 2021 and pointed to the purported militarization of the party and of the “Military Union” that frm PM Khurelsukh has been cozy with, as evidence of unconstitutional activities and reason for the ban.

It is hard to think of this as anything but a desperate grab to hang on to power.

All very Trumpian in this regard, as is the possible response of impeachment efforts.

The Military?

References to the military are particularly worrying in this context. While both main parties have arguably long engaged in activities that threaten elements of democracy (corruption, undermining the independence of the judiciary, undermining the legitimacy of elections through unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud etc.), the military has really stood aside, marking an important difference between Mongolia and some of the populism of authoritarian regimes across SE Asia, for example. The military has carefully stayed out of politics, and politicians have largely stayed away from the military.

Battulga claims that this ended when Khurelsukh seemingly started cozying up to the military as prime minister. His personal background as a political officer in the army in the early 1990s made this seem somewhat natural, however. In his way, Khurelsukh is a military man, he clearly seems to enjoy an association with the military, possibly even some of the pomp and circumstance of uniforms, parades, etc.

The Mongolian Joint Military Union (Монгол цэргийн нэгдсэн холбоо) was started by then-PM Khurelsukh in April 2019. Formally, it is an NGO. It is focused very much on retired military veterans from all services (thus “Joint”, encompassing military, border troops, internal troops, marshal service, police, intelligence, emergency troops). There are no formal links to the military and active duty personnel are not formally involved. The formation of the Military Union is perhaps most rooted in the relatively young retirement age of personnel (typically in their 50s) when they might want to continue to be actively involved. Activities of the Military Union seem to be focused on organizing gift-giving during lunar new year, inviting them to the organization’s anniversary or some celebratory events, and raising funds for funerals or dealing with sickness. The Military Union also advocated on behalf of retirees and very much less so, on behalf of the military.

Khurelsukh’s association with the military has seemed quite innocuous and more of a personal interest. There have been no hints of any politicization of the military outside of this “boosters club”, neither through recruitment of officers or recruits into political causes or elections, nor through any visible presence of the military in politics.

Beyond the “Military Union”, there seems to be no clear basis for Battulga’s claim about a militarization of the state or a politicization of the military by Khurelsukh or the MPP, making these claims seem more like a Trumpian grab for outrageousness to lay claim to public opinion somehow.

Battulga is showing his skill here in simultaneously engaging the Mongolian public and international audiences. In his statement delivering the order to disband the MPP, Battulga alleged not just that Khurelsukh had spoken with the military, or gathered officers, but that the “Military Union” integrated party, local government, and military units across the country. Not only is this a specific allegation, it is one that is aimed to rankle not only a DP base smarting from losses of some of their few former rural strongholds to the MPP, but also Ulaanbaatarites, who fear that rural people themselves might pose “threats to national security,” whether due to being prone to manipulation or having their own particular local identities, interests, and enterprises. Speaking to international audiences that have in the past been supportive of the DP, who know little about Mongolia except perhaps its location between Russia and China and its former status as “Soviet satellite,” Battulga and allies can gesture towards the recent military re-takeover in Myanmar and rising concerns about China and the CCP’s military activities. And unfortunately, in the last 24 hours, we have seen DP stalwarts who have not always been supportive of Battulga reinforcing Battulga’s narrative of the MPP as militarized and “communist” on twitter.

At the same time, we must emphasize that there is no direct evidence that either Battulga’s nor the MPP’s allegations about attempted cooptation of the military are more than that — allegations. The Chief of General Staff has given a press conference reiterating that the Mongolian military is “independent of politics.”

Again, bringing up militarization is an especially effective (i.e. incendiary), move on the part of Battulga, which was returned to Battulga so far from the MPP side only by the statement of one MPP MP, that Battulga had reportedly spoken with the Chief of General Staff, at the presentation of a counter-statement against the disbanding order.]

Populism

This clinging of power seems consistent with Battulga’s presidency in general. Even after four years, it remains entirely unclear why Battulga has wanted to be president. There is no visible political agenda beyond power and his own political survival. Instead, Battulga has largely engaged in little-thought-out, populist initiatives like the flaring up of support for the death penalty or his attempts to be seen as the source of populist spending measures. There is no political program there.

Yet, in clinging to power now, Battulga is tapping into some popular trepidation about the prospect of a Khurelsukh election victory that would hand MPP power over the presidency in addition to its dominance of parliament.

Trepidation about MPP Dominance

By tapping into this fear, Battulga’s confrontation of the MPP may be paving the way for a stronger anyone-but-the-MPP vote in the presidential election. Much of the specifics there would obviously depend on the constellation of nominees, but it is significant to note that Battulga’s own election in 2017 was likely driven more by anti-M Enkhbold sentiment and some attempt to balance party power, than the attractiveness of Battulga’s offering.

Authoritarian Past

About that trepidation though… I am not entirely sure that I understand quite what is behind this. Factors may obviously include the MPP’s pre-1990 authoritarian history. Some of that authoritarian history has not really been a focus of attention as was clear in the recent 100-year-anniversary celebrations. Yet, none of the current actors have any particular personal ties to that authoritarian history. Notably, Oyun-Erdene is the first PM for whom the revolution came while he was still a child.

Recent Past

I do not see any evidence for any strong authoritarian tendencies in recent MPP policies. For example, the MPP super-majority has ruled parliament since 2016, confirmed in last year’s election. Never mind that to me both of those elections were quite legitimate, so that I look at the MPP as appropriately elected by Mongolians. But has the party acted like a dictator in parliament? The most critical example would probably be the 2019 constitutional amendments as such amendments have the potential to change the rules of the game. To me, the various amendments seem neither predominantly partisan, nor do they seem to erode democracy. Arguably, the change to a six-year single-term presidency may have been in part anti-Battulga (last week’s Цэц decision could be taken as evidence of that), but it is not depriving Mongolians of their ability to select the president.

Likewise, the strengthening of some parliamentary powers and of the PM benefit the current incumbents to some extent, but as said above, Mongolians certainly had a chance in 2020 to elect a different parliament and any other government would also have benefitted from additional powers given to the PM.

Accusations of corruption and state capture have been traded between the parties for a long time now. While direct evidence is lacking (including in the various cases brought against former MPP officials), there is no obvious reason to conclude that members of the MPP are particularly more (or less) corrupt than members of the DP.

And some of the organizational strength of the MPP surely is a legacy of the authoritarian past, but the DP and other parties have had 30 years to build up their own strength. There is some path dependence in this, obviously, highly organized local power probably breeds more local power, but even then I find it difficult to attribute this to authoritarian tendencies.

Comparative Perspective

It is also important to note that a landslide win won in legitimate elections, is not a bad thing or anti-democratic per se. While France’s presidential polity has seen times of the (more powerful than in Mongolia) president from one party, but the Assemblée National dominated by another party (cohabitation), the opposite situation has also existed without anyone really fearing the arrival of single-party rule. The same could be said of the U.S. where there have been times of presidents being able to rely on Congress dominated by the same party, and the opposite situation. There is less of a comparison in parliamentary systems where there is no obvious “balancing” power to parliament. But even when majorities in the Bundesrat, representing the German states, have overlapped with coalition majorities in the Bundestag, parliament, that has not signalled single-party rule.

In sum on this trepidation then, many Mongolians seem to have expressed a clear preference for a balance between political forces, leading to the swinging back and forth between MPP and DP governments. This changed with the landslide re-election of the MPP in the 2020 election. Even if some of the observations above capture reality, that does not negate the preference that many Mongolians might hold. Even then, however, that preference might provide motivation for voters not to support Khurelsukh (or any other MPP nominee), but it is not evidence of a trend toward single-party rule.

Conclusion

Two of the main claims made by Battulga in his decree, i.e. militarization and one-party dictatorship, seem somewhat implausible to us. That does not mean that they do not capture elements of facts nor that many Mongolians might not lend credence to them, but it does temper our concerns about what he alleges significantly.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Democratic Party, Elections, History, Military, Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Populism, Presidential 2021 | Tagged | Leave a comment

Untold Podcast Episode 3: “My Dream Is Safe, Accessible Streets”

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Our guest was Mrs. Chuluundolgor – President of the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association and we did not realize that our recording lasted way over an hour. She faced similar challenges to our first guest Battulga. Because of a tragic car accident, she lost her mobility at the age of sixteen – shocked and depressed, she thought she was the only one in a wheelchair in Uvurkhangai aimag.

Professional counselling to help her deal with the mental hardship was not available. Chuluundolgor was inspired by two strong beautiful ladies – Enkhtuya sister, as she called, and renowned circus actress Tsogtsetseg – both wheelchair users with a beautiful smile. That was the first time Chuluundolgor saw that people can be happy even when they are in a wheelchair. She studied economy and hoped to get a job at the bank. But all banks declined her application. Just like Battulga, at that time, she realized that she needs to fight for her rights and joined the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association. It was touching to hear how the association conducted their earlier meetings at the National Park, near the Marshall Bridge, and in front of the Drama Theatre since there was no place that could accommodate a large number of wheelchair users. Our podcast covers many important issues, here are a few highlights.

Photo: Mrs. Chuluundolgor, President of the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association

A Fight for Motherhood

Her road to motherhood was not an easy one. In Mongolia, doctors, social workers, and parents often advise women with disabilities against pregnancy – which is the most important natural right. They discourage pregnancy for two common reasons: (1) anticipation of medical emergency and difficulties at any stage of the pregnancy and (2) likelihood of genetical inheritance of the disability in the offspring. The former is understandable, the latter is not a scientifically proven fact. Our guest fought against this culture. It was not easy to get her medical tests and check-ups at the hospital. Doctors were surprised at her and there were neither adjustable examination beds, nor accessible washrooms, or any special weighing scales. Her husband carried her in his hands between floors at the five-story hospital in the absence of lifts or escalators. At the end of this endeavor, she delivered a healthy baby boy without any major medical complications. She happily stated that most hospitals and maternity homes are now equipped with adjustable beds, scales, accessible washrooms, and lifts. Unlike in 2013, now doctors and nurses are knowledgeable about the pregnancy of disabled women. However, this change applies to the major city only.

The Reproductive Rights of Women with Disabilities

In the countryside, things are worse. Health professionals and social workers strongly discourage the pregnancy and even carry out campaigns for contraceptive injections. There was an incident in which social workers tied the receiving of social welfare pension to the three-month contraceptive injections as a requirement. Parents can usually be divided into two categories: those who discourage the pregnancy because of health challenges, and those who encourage the pregnancy in order to have a child help her in the future. This raises a question – why these people are making their children’s lifetime choices on behalf of them and whether people with disabilities know about their rights. Chuluundolgor explains that the prevalent culture, or practice, in Mongolia is to increase the dependency of disabled people on their families and close ones. Since disabled people heavily rely on them, they surrender all their rights to them and are patronised. Some even do not know whether they receive social welfare pension or not. And she highlighted the lack of knowledge dissemination in Mongolia. According to their association’s study, many disabled people have no understanding about sexual and reproductive health – especially those with hearing or vision impairments and mental disabilities – basically do not have access to general knowledge. Unless their family members, social workers, and health professionals provide them with this knowledge systematically, they actually rely on rumours. One of their surveys revealed that a third of disabled female participants believes AIDS is non-transmittable. The more isolated from the urban centers they are, the less aware they are about their own rights.

Labour – One Needs to Follow Up

Our discussion led us to the topic of employment. Only 10 percent of disabled people (70,000) with working capacity are employed. Politicians and government officials publicize the new amendments in the Mongolian Labour Law – which requires any business entity or organization that has more than 50 employees, to employ disabled people at a level of 3% of its total employees. In case of failure to employ people with disabilities, business entities are required to pay a penalty tax, which would be used to create employment opportunities for the disabled. At the same time, the law requires a lengthy, unnecessary documentation process for any organization to win a tender to fund the employment of disabled people. As a result of the presidential decree (#128) to enforce the Labour Law, 8.3 billion Tugrik have been collected – of which 60 per cent was spent on promoting employment of PWD and other people but no one knows where the rest of the money is now. This law and the fund need to be used to address some key challenges. For any disabled person, it is quite difficult to adjust to new working conditions, especially when their pay cannot even cover the transportation costs since taking a taxi is the only option. There should be an induction process – a slow start, mix of online and office work, a break for every 2 hours – for disabled employees. The above-mentioned fund could be used to create a training program for managers and staff of business entities and/or to create a barrier-free work environment and inclusive culture. Also, the fund could be used to resolve the transportation issues for disabled employees. For anyone, who would have to spend all their earnings on transportation costs and was not properly coached about the new work culture and environment, it would be hard to get out of their comfort zone – even if it is terrible and isolating.

Photo: Wheelchair Repair Workshop of the the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association

Why Let Disabled People Be in Charge

At several times during our conversation, Chuluundolgor highlighted the crucial importance for government officials at the national and local level to listen to civil society experts – as they are working for people with disabilities. She wondered if someone in rural Bayan-Ulgii aimag knows about the government’s fine employment program for disabled people. Or, whether the governor has spoken to local non-governmental organizations. This raises a particularly important question – why people with disabilities are not in charge of their own matters in the national and local government. She implied more disabled people should work at the General Authority for Development of Persons with Disabilities. This is a very valid point. For example, women would be uncomfortable if men were in charge of any type of women’s organization. If the parliament, prime minister, and president hired disabled experts as their advisors, or ministries provided positions for disabled people, it would be a major step forward to change the public perceptions of disabled employees. The same applies to local governments – provinces and soum level. Mayors of big cities could have people with disabilities as employees, or, in an advisory capacity. After only having listened to three guests, it was strikingly clear that ordinary people do not understand the challenges of disabled people – unless they have some personal or professional experience. All our guests sounded somewhat unhappy about the negligence of government officials – whether it be about drafting the policy at the parliament and ministries or implementing policies on the ground. They wished: if only these experts had known or experienced the needs and wishes of people with disabilities, if they had been in an inclusive learning environment (kindergarten, schools), or if they had listened to people with disabilities.

Photo: Eco Gift Shop runs by the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association

Impacts of COVID-19

They are immense, she sighed deeply. She cannot even think about the many disabled people who live on their own during this pandemic. According to their poll (200 correspondents) during the pandemic, 79% have no income and 61% could not get meal coupons. Particularly those, who live in dormitories during the frigid cold days of winter, could not reach out to the social workers of their primary (permanent) residency. Those who live in ger districts could not get their coal and water. She could not even begin to describe how the strict lockdown impacted disabled people – many of their relatives or friends could not come and help. And those who rely on their cars (adjusted/improvised old cars for disabled people) could not drive around to get their food and medicine. She shared two stories. A disabled person had a fever and called the medical emergency and told them he needed a cleaning of his bandages. The medics asked to check and report his temperature every three hours because it could be Covid-19. So, the person asked a befriended doctor. The doctor cleaned the abscess and saved his life. If someone had not cleaned the abscess, he could have died – as the doctor said. In another case, a disabled mother called the doctor because her baby appeared to be sick. The doctor was afraid of contracting Covid-19 and asked her to call the emergency. But the disabled mom did not want to call the emergency – if she did, she would be quarantined with a baby. The big question here is if the State Emergency Commission has a plan for those with disabilities, with special medical needs, and for those in need of a care person. Or who would take care if someone’s caregiver is infected and isolated? How would the disabled person receive their regular and scheduled medical care, as well as take their medication? These and many other questions she raised – but we could not find any specific regulations and rules set out. If the state fails to provide, what about the volunteer organizations? 

Photo: Eco Gift Shop runs by the Mongolian National Wheelchair Users’ Association

How to Treat People with Disabilities

Never focus on the person’s disability – she strongly advised. Treat a person with any disability like a normal person. Ask them questions about their opinions, for example, during these covid days, talk about vaccines: which one is good and why they think that way. You would be surprised how shrewd, how witty people with disabilities are because they spend more time to critically ponder about life and values. If you have a child with a disability, do not make their choices for them on food, clothes, outings, and so forth. You may think you know very well about your child’s need. But if you do not ask for their opinion, you are not respecting your child’s right dignity and right to self-determination. They need to learn how to make choices, and this will give them responsibility. If your child wants to eat soup, ask him/her to take part in the process of preparation, even if it’s only peeling potatoes. Here, Chuluundolgor shared her personal story. At work, her colleagues challenge her all the time. But when she meets her close friends and relatives in her native place (Uvurkhangai), they all focus on her disability. Even though they all want to take care of her in good will, such an attitude quickly triggers her very feeling of sadness and being different than others. After Chuluundolgor said that people with disabilities should be invited to join any community work – even cleaning the streets, it took us a while to grasp her point – they would feel happy being included in the social context. And we need to try our best to let them forget about their sufferings and vulnerability even if it is just for a short time.

At the end of our talk, Chuluundolgor shared her dream – a safe, accessible road for her son and people with disabilities. His son is in the second grade. Before the pandemic, she waited for him every day in her car since she cannot go around the school ground in her wheelchair. She hopes her son would get a high-quality education and grow up in a safe, healthy environment. Because of the low traffic safety standard, it would be hard for her to let her son go alone to the school. But he would eventually walk alone.

She told us that people with wheelchairs feel freedom when they travel to developed countries because they can get around without assistance. But the moment they step out at the Chinggis Khaan Airport, they realize their dependency. Only 8,000 out of 30,000 disabled people live in apartments and she could not imagine how those living in the ger districts try to move their wheelchairs on muddy, rocky, and zigzagged streets. The state needs to invest in making roads and transportations accessible, barrier free – thus changing the lives of many disabled people – it could even help them to become self-reliant taxpayers. Yes, these accessible streets would be also shared by parents with baby carts, toddlers, elders, or other with walking aids, and sick/tired people. Throughout the podcast, our guest keeps highlighting the positive changes – buildings have better accessibility, and most importantly, attitudes are changing. Let us end on this positive note.

The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia.

Posted in Education, Gender, Human Rights, People with Disabilities | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Constitutional Court and Gridlock in Mongolian Democracy

By Bat-Orgil Altankhuyag and Marissa J. Smith

As covered by Mongolia Focus, the Mongolian government made significant changes to the Constitution in 2019. This was the second time that changes have been made since the Democratic Constitution was adopted in 1992.

Even though there is a consensus among politicians and scholars in Mongolia that the new amendments can lead to positive change in the political system in Mongolia, their ratification is part of an ongoing project of political reform on the part of dominant forces in the Mongolian People’s Party and this has also led to some inevitable institutional conflicts. One of them is the current debate on whether or not the current president is allowed to run again for the upcoming presidential election. Scholars and politicians have different opinions on this issue. The Constitutional Court is set to make a final judgment on it on Friday (April 16, 2021).

Parliament(arianism) vs. President(ialism)

Driven by the Mongolian People’s Party, which holds a supermajority in Parliament, the main point of the new amendments was to move from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentarian system, or at least to substantially check the powers of the president. The new amendments even include the provision that Presidential powers be limited to those in the Constitution (§33.4) (though the Law on the Presidency itself remains to be changed or repealed). The transition from Prime Minister Khurelsukh to Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene and a revamped Cabinet proceeded in late January/early February almost without a hitch in accordance with the new amendments, as President Battulga punctually confirmed of all of the nominees. But more recently the President has fought back against the trimming back of his powers by utilizing his veto powers on legislation passed by the Parliament, making submissions (including in person) to the Constitutional Court, and vetoing and otherwise influencing the nomination of new members of the Constitutional Court.

Even though there is currently a double crisis of health and economy due to the Covid pandemic in Mongolia, it seems like politicians have been quite focused on the question of whether Battulga can run for reelection or not. One of the main scholars who actively participated in the development of the recent Constitutional amendments was Professor Munkhsaikhan Odonkhuu from the National University of Mongolia, who writes that “with the establishment of a single term presidency, whether current and former presidents can run again is not clear.” According to the recent Constitutional amendment, a citizen who has reached 50 years old can be a president only once. In the original draft of the amendment, this clause would have  been implemented after 2025. However, the Parliament made a change on this date and made it to 25 May 2020. Interestingly, the General Secretariat of President, Enkhbold Zandaakhuu (a long time Democratic Party power in his own right, Speaker of the Parliament from 2012 to 2016 and head of the DP from 2014 to 2016) suggested this change (see also this source).

Influencing the Constitutional Court: Nominations, Vetoed Nominations, Submissions, Submissions in Person

Many people have been questioning whether or not the Constitutional Court can make professional and independent decisions, and the Court has been making various questionable decisions for the last 30 years of democracy in Mongolia. For example, in 2016 the Constitutional Court decided that the mixed electoral system that was used in the 2012 parliamentary election is unconstitutional (the decision may be read at legalinfo.mn). It is extremely hard to justify this decision unless the court made this decision for political purposes, i.e. to benefit the current majority in Parliament, i.e. the Mongolian People’s Party. (See the recent presentation by Professor Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg, here starting at the 1 hour, 34 minute mark.)

According to Article 65 of the Constitution (in place since 1992 and not part of either the amendments of 1999-2000): The Mongolian Constitutional Court has nine members. To keep balance in the Court reflecting distribution of power among the different branches of government, three members are nominated by the Parliament, three members are nominated by the President, three members are nominated by the Supreme Court, and then the Great Khural (Parliament) appoints them for six years.

The six-year terms of the current two members nominated by the Supreme Court (Deed Shuukh, not to be confused with the Tsets, the Constitutional Court) have already expired. Because of the expiration of the terms of two justices, the Parliament appointed J. Erdenebulgan and dismissed Sh. Tsogtoo on March 26, 2021 (it is unclear why they are not being appointed by the Supreme Court, but current matters of judicial independence are numerous and they deserve at least one separate post). The General Secretary of the President’s Office, U. Shijir, stated that this sudden appointment was due to politicians’ action in order to influence the Constitutional Court’s decision.  President Battulga vetoed the decision and the Parliament discussed it, and ultimately Sh. Tsogtoo was nominated (rather than Battulga’s requested D. Solongo), and now the Democratic Party MPs have raised complaints about the ethics of another justice, D. Odbayar, the former chairman who sexually assaulted a South Korean flight attendant – two years ago.

The President’s official representative, attorney B. Gunbileg, is arguing that there is no restriction regarding the current president’s right to run for the election. He also stated that the ruling party is trying to influence the decision-making of the Constitutional Court by changing the members. There is some conflicting information in media as to whether the Court has made initial meetings (Baga suudliin khuraldaan or Meeting of Small Chambers)  or not because of the third KhUN Party’s sole MP’s petition on the issue. Gunbileg also stated that the Constitutional Court declined the Meeting of Small Chambers and scheduled a Meeting of Medium Chambers in the Court. He argued that it is a clear sign of political influence.

In January 2020, President Battulga was joined by all four former Presidents in submitting to the Constitutional Court questioning the constitutionality of the new clause apparently barring reelection. But more recently, the President himself went to the Constitutional Court’s office to open cases regarding new laws on the judicial sector (which are necessary to fully implement some of the new Constitutional amendments) after Parliament overrode Battulga’s veto of the new Law on Courts. This is an entirely new precedent because a previous president has never visited the Constitutional Court himself (all four presidents have been men) and the Constitutional Court has never taken a whole law draft as a petition. According to the Law on the Constitutional Court, Article 10, submissions by the President must be considered by a session of the Court. A. Byambajargal, Professor of Law at the National University of Mongolia stated that the president is trying to influence the constitutional court’s decision through his actions.

In general, the Mongolian Democratic Constitution of 1992 has been open to various conflicting explanations. The Court that should make the final judgment on the Constitution became a highly politicized organization. We can argue that in its current form and context the Constitutional Court can have the function of gridlock in the Mongolian political system or democracy in general. This gridlock will likely continue unless there are significant changes in the Constitution itself.

 

Update, Friday, April 16, 2021:

The Constitutional Court has ruled that some provisions of the Law on Presidential Elections are unconstitutional (specifically, those stipulating that any citizen who has reached age 50, resided in Mongolia for five years, and has registered as a candidate may stand for election), thus aligning the Law on Presidential Elections and the 2019/2020 Constitutional amendments. This is widely recognized as a ruling that President Battulga and other previous Presidents may not run for reelection.

However, DP MP J. Batsuuri has already complained about which justices participated in the session — D. Odbayar (about whom DP MPs made ethics complaints about a few days ago) chaired the session after Ts. Nanzaddorj did not participate, and D. Solongo (one of the two justices whose terms have expired) also participated.

 

Bat-Orgil Altankhuyag is a political analyst with a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and postgraduate degree in development studies from the University of Auckland. He has worked with a number of international and local research and development organizations. His blog is http://www.bat-orgil.com/.

Posted in Bat-Orgil Altankhuyag, Constitution, Democracy, Elections, Governance, Politics, Presidential 2021 | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: COVID19 in Ulaanbaatar II – Emergency Levels, Lockdowns and Patterns

By Paweł Szczap

[This is a second part to a post published on Apr 2 2021 focused on mass testing and risk areas.]

In order to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Ulaanbaatar, a two-week-long, citywide lockdown was introduced mid-February 2021. As the lockdown overlapped with the Mongolian Lunar New Year it was supposed to keep the disease at bay during a potentially very vulnerable period. Additionally, a mass testing program called Neg khaalga – Neg shinjilgee (One Door – One Test; below abbreviated as 1D1T) was implemented during the lockdown. Data gathered during the testing campaign served as a foundation for modeling the development of the local pandemic. 1D1T has been discussed in more detail in the first part of this text. After lifting the February lockdown, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Ulaanbaatar started increasing. Throughout March the emergency and municipal authorities were trying to avoid introducing a next citywide even despite the Health Ministry’s recommendations. Patterns which were made visible through 1D1T served as basis for enforcing a makeshift strategy of neighborhood lockdowns. This second part of the  COVID-19-related March events’ summary deals mostly with restrictions on mobility in Ulaanbaatar throughout March 2021 and the relationship between the city’s urban tissue and the spread of COVID-19.

Emergency Measures

A notable increase in new cases is visible in the Mongolian Statistical Information Service’s data, starting March 5th i.e. ten days after the lockdown was lifted – just about enough time for people to reenter society, effectively transmit the disease and start showing symptoms. The strategy of the mass testing program was defective. This might have been due to various factors (but most likely their combination, including): using PCR test which are not best suited for mass testing, errors in testing procedures and communicating outcomes to citizens, lack of proper case investigation and contact tracing or too little time between tests and lifting of the lockdown just to name the most probable.

Orange-level state of emergency has been introduced for March 15th through March 29th and further extended to April 5th. On March 31st the State Emergency Commission seems to have upheld a version of this orange-level state of emergency  until April 18th. In theory, this means a temporary halt for most venues and events related to leisure, other social activities and more. In practice many establishments continue functioning regardless. A detailed list of the restrictions sorted by emergency state can be found below:

Fig. 1 Emergency state restrictions sorted by emergency level

 

In the case of many other cities, the phrase ‘partial lockdown’ implies partial limitations, such as those listed above. In the Ulaanbaatar context however, partial lockdown implies strict limitations but imposed only onto a specific neighbourhood.

The way in which the 1D1T campaign was designed as well as the way in which its outcomes are being utilized, all point to a narrative presenting the coronavirus as being transmitted nearly exclusively within residential areas. Also the strategy to combat the virus seems to be aligned with this residence-oriented narrative. This is not to say that measures related to public spaces and social life (e.g. as those listed above) are not being introduced. However, the household, seen as a container for the coronavirus infected, seems to be the main concern of the authorities. This leads to increased-risk areas being announced primarily on the khoroo (basic administrative unit of the capital) level, and so it is also the khoroo-level on which partial lockdowns are being enforced. Such an approach has both pros and cons but what is interesting in the local context are the parallels to be found with a strategy previously used to combat infectious disease (hoof-and-mouth disease in particular) in Mongolia. It is based around the idea of establishing smaller, marked and often policed quarantine zones in order to limit or fully prevent movement around and through areas of increased viral risk. This neighbourhood lockdown drill is already known not only in the countryside but also in the city.

However, respiratory disease transmission occurs differently from that of HMD, and the approach to COVID-19-related partial lockdown measures should not be copied from the HMD drill in a 1:1 manner. It could also be seen on the recent example of Bayanzürkh district’s 26th khoroo, that if not sufficiently announced prior, closing off an area with a population of several thousand on the basis of several confirmed cases might spur further distrust towards the authorities’ actions.

Two Recent Partial Lockdowns

In recent days the case of Bayanzürkh district’s 26th khoroo’s temporary lockdown was covered by multiple media outlets. If one looks back at the announcements published since at least mid-February, this khoroo of nearly 24 000 inhabitants was repeatedly mentioned as a site of increased risk. Nevertheless, in took over a month for the area to become subject to a suddenly announced partial lockdown starting early morning March 17th, supposed to last until evening March 21st but lifted already in the morning of March 20th after confirming further cases and tracing their recent social contacts. Based on the number of cases, the area has been confirmed as one of the most COVID-ridden sites in Ulaanbaatar.  It is likely that the lockdown was lifted earlier than originally announced partly due to social pressure by the khoroo’s inhabitants. On March 18th another partial lockdown was announced for the adjacent 15th khoroo of Khan-Uul district (khoroo population exceeding 13 000), including, among other residential complexes, also the Khurd/Rapid Kharsh residential district bordering the National Stadium. The two khoroos (Bayanzürkh district’s 26th khoroo and Khan-Uul district’s 15th khoroo) are part of Ulaanbaatar’s most densely populated southern residential belt, stretching along and south from, the Dund gol River (i.e. part of Selbe gol River). If any spatial pattern of COVID-19’s spread as based on residence areas is to be taken notice of, the two khoroos are at its core. They are part of a bow-shaped belt of outbreaks stretching south of the city’s main artery – Peace Avenue.

Outbreaks in High-Rise Residential Areas

The spread of the disease is accelerated by the composition of the urban tissue in the city’s built-up core, with its high concentration of interwoven high-rise residential districts, office and service facilities within close proximity to transport nodes.

A recent 3D visualization shared by the Municipal Emergency Commission  allows for a better grasping of the overlap between high-rise residential areas and the confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks.

 

It can already be said with fair certainty that people living in the newer residential districts south of the city center form one of the core infected groups. This is because regardless of the circumstances of infections outside of the area of residence, the high-rise buildup and population density coupled with the proximity to service facilities makes transmission more likely. A higher concentration of people in shared spaces (especially elevators, service facilities like laundry rooms, gyms, small shops etc.) and other, similar instances of “sufficient” exposure to the disease create conditions favourable for effective viral transmission. Due to these newer residential districts’ self-contained internal structure (including on-spot shops and service points), they allow for decreased contact with the greater urban population, in theory making partial lockdowns more easily enforced. At the same time however, the same self-contained quality leads to increased contacts among smaller groups of the areas’ inhabitants and their widely understood “staff” (janitors, grocery shop and service point owners and staff, security etc.). When these workers eventually leave the areas and commute, often to the ger districts or go shopping to potentially crowded market places the disease might travel with them. Fortunately, as of the end of March 2021, ger district areas seemed to be least affected, which is mostly due to their low population density.

Outbreaks in the Ger Districts

Of Ulaanbaatar’s six central districts, Songinokhairkhan’s ger areas seem to be the most affected, with over 20 separate locations throughout multiple neighbourhoods. One might still be surprised that there hasn’t been more cases in the ger areas. The relatively low population density and sufficient air flow due to the areas’ elevation and land-use type, seem to obstruct the dynamic of the virus’ spread. To date, most of the outbreak locations in the ger districts, have been low in case numbers and rather dispersed throughout the areas, with multiple cases appearing several kilometers from the city centre. Public transport terminuses, often serving the role of local hubs with shops or market places, service points and public transport nodes all located in a relatively compact area also present a relatively high risk of virus transmission.

The often unobvious models of cohabitation among relatives might pose a challenge to adequate enforcement of thorough testing and contact tracing. Thus, the question remains regarding the reliability of the to-date testing efforts among the ger districts’ populations. Nevertheless, the main concerns in regard to the spread of the coronavirus in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts are related to the difficult hygienic conditions, especially lack of running hot water. Along with the closing of many public baths, this poses increased risk especially to those of ger district’s inhabitants who work in the health sector. Another issue are the, often limited, possibilities of family members’ simultaneous self-isolation and quarantining in gers or unicameral houses. The cases of Khailaast and adjacent areas, (khoroos 13th, 14th, 16th, 18th Chingeltei district), Dambadarjaa (15th khoroo Sükhbaatar district) and Khaniin Material (6th khoroo Songinokhairkhan district) show us that it is not unlikely for the disease to gain numbers in the ger districts.

Selective Measures

When too much attention is directed towards closing off whole residential areas, the danger of overlooking other potential sites of increased transmission hazard rises. This is best exemplified by the outbreak in the National Academic Drama Theatre, where following a play attended by 900 people, 54 cases of COVID-19 infections have been confirmed among the institution’s staff.

Ulaanbaatar and emergency authorities are taking their best shots at three most important measures required for containing the spread of the epidemic: lockdowns, constant testing and accessible vaccination. When it comes to the enforcement of mass campaigns things seem forwarding: lockdowns (if enforced!) allow for testing, slow the virus down, make mass vaccination easier etc. However, where the most problems seem to arise is in between these grander measures. Judging from SEC’s decisions, another citywide lockdown does not presently seem to be viable option.

These problems take the shape of insufficient information campaigns resulting in a growing distrust for the authorities’ actions and complaints about a lack of transparency (mostly regarding financing and scientific backing for measures undertaken by the authorities). Irregularities of enforced procedures are being reported, regarding partial lockdowns, lack of proper medical support, faulty test results etc. Little attention is being payed to the impact of underaged vectors, transmissions and outbreaks in public and workplace circumstances such as those of the Bayanzürkh Hospital (mid-December 2020), the National Academic Drama Theatre (early March 2021) or State Emergency Commission’s Operational Headquarters (second half of March 2021) seem to be downplayed. Even though a strict lockdown seemed to be the most obvious path to take in mid-March, municipal and emergency authorities were having a hard time mediating between the possibility of new coronavirus outbreaks and the potential of social dissatisfaction outbursts. The latter ones arrive both from the better situated inhabitants of the southern residential belt as well as other groups including citizens without a steady income and others , to some of whom even a week-long lockdown constitutes a severe strike to their household budget. Thus, concerns with the state of the local economy also come into the picture. Unfortunately, also in this area the authorities are having issues with communicating their plans and concrete measures transparently enough.

At a press conference by the Health Ministry held March 22nd (daily Ulaanbaatar cases reported at 206), it has been explicitly stated that Ulaanbaatar as a whole should be treated as one large outbreak site. On the same day, the postponing of a potential lockdown until April 5th has been announced by SEC. The Commission’s decision came just days after its previous announcement that Ulaanbaatar will be entering into a lockdown if new daily cases exceed 200. In the last days of March the number of new daily cases kept increasing. On March 31st SEC dismissed the possibility of introducing a citywide lockdown before April 18th. This decisions might seem justifiable when seen in the context of earlier estimates, according to which, by May 1st around one million of Ulaanbaatar’s citizens are supposed to have already developed COVID-19 immunity after completing their vaccination procedures. The question remains whether, in the present epidemiological situation, the authorities will be able to follow up with the vaccination program as previously planned.

Further Partial Lockdowns

Due to the dissatisfaction voiced over the above-discussed lockdowns of Bayanzürkh district’s 26th khoroo and Khan-Uul district’s 15th khoroo, these partial lockdowns are now been euphemistically dubbed “broadened survey measures” and presented as creating conditions necessary for thoroughly testing and tracing social contacts of a given target group, rather than as restrictions enforcing limitations upon people’s mobility. One of the next locations where “broadened survey measures” are most probable to be carried out is Bayangol district’s 12th khoroo, containing the so-called Bichil khoroolol. Contrary to the two previous locations filled mostly with newer buildings, the khoroo in which Bichil is located consists largely of late socialist-period prefabricated residential buildings. Another location whose lockdown might become necessary is the 3rd khoroo of Khan-Uul district. With its multiple plant and manufacture facilities, located in a small area with limited public transport access routes, it creates very convenient conditions for the virus to spread and might soon become a textbook example of a workplace viral transmission node. Since it is not a residential area, multiple financially-backed entities might become engaged in the process of negotiating the khoroo’s potential lockdown.

Fig. 4 Areas of increased viral transmission danger as of March 23rd

The Wolves Come with the Rain

Due to the population numbers and density as well as the Ulaanbaatar’s role as Mongolia’s main transport hub, the epidemiological situation within the city is crucial for the containing the spread of the pandemic in the country. Of the several national and municipal level authorities cooperating to tackle the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in Ulaanbaatar (the Health Ministry, the National Emergency Management Agency, the State Emergency Commission , the Mayor’s Office, the Municipal Emergency Commission), the State Emergency Commission is the main “political” face the whole process.

A popular proverbial line “chono boroonoor” (the wolf [utilizes] the rain) recently updated to the current circumstances states “chono boroonoor, UOK koronoor”(he wolf [utilizes] the rain, SEC [utilizes] corona), expressing the popular dissatisfaction with the recent actions of the authorities and concerns with the lack of accountability. Even despite the non-stop work being put in by SEC, its previously valid line of argumentation, based on the fact of securing Mongolia’s relative safety throughout most of 2020, now seems to be loosing its previous leverage, one useful or even necessary to legitimize actions lacking wider public support. The already decreasing support for SEC’s decisions is likely to be further affected in April. This is not only due to the potential of the pandemic’s growth but also due to the fact that deaths resulting from the post-lockdown, March infections are bound to start coming up in April statistics, delivering delayed information about last month’s actual death toll.

An extended version of both parts of this “Ulaanbaatar: COVID-19 as of March-21” summary/commentary along with other resources can be found at: https://ubstudies.wordpress.com/covid-19-in-ulaanbaatar/

About Paweł Szczap

Paweł Szczap is a Mongolist, Mongolian language translator and PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw. He mostly works with the Mongolian built environment and is currently researching Ulaanbaatar city maps and place names. He has spent over four years living in Mongolia and has on numerous occasions cooperated with the Ulaanbaatar City Museum. Previous works include research on Mongolian nationalism and the cultural impact of mining among others. He is currently developing two online projects: Ulaanbaatar Studies and Mongol hip-hop.

 

 

Posted in Health, Paweł Szczap, Public Policy, Ulaanbaatar | Leave a comment

Untold Podcast Episode 2: “We are different, but we respect each other”

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Our second guest of our UNTOLD podcast is Altangerel, CEO of the Autism Association of Mongolia. Over 800 parents were registered in the association and many of them joined from abroad. But they all share the same dream of an inclusive, equal society for their children, and they exchange their knowledge and experience with many other parents who are helping their children to overcome the challenges that the effects of autism bring along. Since autism is a recently introduced category of disability, our guest pointed out all major challenges – (1) no reliable statistics, (2) evaluation is new and costly, (3) no systematic feedback and monitoring of the development of autistic children, and (4) exclusion of autistic youth from employment.

The Discovery of Autism

In 2003, Altangerel went to Japan to study for a graduate degree along with her family – a spouse and their sweet little baby-boy. One day, the director of the Japanese kindergarten told them about the Japanese pre-school education system and asked if they could book an appointment for their son at the child development centre. For three days, childcare specialists played with their son and asked several questions about him. At the end, they explained autism to them and their son was placed in the autism spectrum. At first, she did not take autism seriously and thought that once her son became able to speak – this would not be a problem. However, she was glad about her son’s early diagnosis and the monitoring by Japanese specialists until she completed her degree (until her son was 6.6 years old). In hindsight, Japan has a well-established system of early detection of autism and regular evaluation of the child’s development. If she had been in Mongolia in 2003, the child would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and directed to the Psychiatric Hospital in Shar Khad. She and her husband would have been traumatized, and now her son might have been suffering from side-effects of psychiatric medicine.

Altangerel with her son Khuvit

Joining out of Goodwill

When they returned to Mongolia in 2008, there was little understanding of autism. Doctors still included people with autistic symptoms in the mental disorder group and automatically diagnosed them with schizophrenia, which would be treated at the psychiatric hospital at Shar Khad. So, Altangerel followed the rule and met with Dr. Enkhtuya – who was surprised about the different symptoms of her son than other children with autism. At that time, Mongolian doctors already knew about autism being different from a schizophrenic disorder, but they did not know how to diagnose and evaluate the development of children in the autistic spectrum. This led Altangerel to join other parents experiencing similar challenges, and they established the Autism Association of Mongolia in January 2014. Their goal was clear: to increase public awareness about autism, to work together to advocate policy changes, and to support each other in dealing with a unique challenge – autism. It is touching to hear that a small non-governmental organization along with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology reached out to 600 elementary school teachers, social workers, and psychologist to educate them about autism and the related pedagogy. Now, they aim to provide their training and handbooks to up to ten thousand educators between 2019 and 2024. Nevertheless, this great endeavor has been interrupted by the pandemic.

A workshop with Educators, with a permission of Altangerel

 How Much Has Changed

“Changed, but” – she explained it would take time. In 2010, the ADRA, an international non-governmental organization, implemented the first project, which basically helped Mongolian doctors learn about autism. Altangerel told us the story of a doctor – who worked at the Psychiatric Hospital. After learning about autism, the doctor recalled their diagnosis of an 18-year-old man with schizophrenia in 1985. He had shown more symptoms of autism – it was a wrong diagnosis. And, even in 2010, a child with autism had to be diagnosed in the category of mental disorder in order to receive social welfare benefits and services. There is still no designated category for autism. This makes it difficult for any business entity to employ people with autism because it is considered a mental illness. Altangerel is hopeful that the state and business entities will find ways to open opportunities for people with autism. Many of them are talented, but they need an inclusive, understanding culture and attitude from the society. One of the significant changes would be the introduction of an inclusive educational policy – to provide a number of opportunities for disabled students to study together with their peers. Although it is difficult for public school teachers with overcrowded classrooms (50-60 students per teacher and classroom) to accommodate children with special needs, students who had disabled classmates will understand challenges and needs of their disabled friends. Altangerel stressed that this is a major step forward to develop an equal, inclusive society and to teach the principles of humanity to our children. If your child studies with a disabled peer, ask him/her to talk and help their classmate – do not advise them to stay away.

Khuvit at his art school, with a permission of Altangerel

Advice for Parents with an Autistic Child

Science is still trying to figure out autism. Its cause is unknown. Therefore, if your child is diagnosed with autism, do not blame each other, or do not try to figure out what might have caused it. You would never find out. There is nothing to be ashamed of – as she sternly challenged to question why one needs to be ashamed. Rather think that God or Buddha send this child to you because you could raise a good person. Altangerel advised to focus on your child, observe him/her and help them to get over different types of challenges. According to Altangerel, there are three types of autism – (1) classic – autistic disorder, (2) Asperger (milder), and (3) pervasive one. Autisms need to be diagnosed earlier, but parents lose time for two reasons: For one, they do not know. Particularly with regard to boys, many parents assume their child is slow in talking and explain this with the father having been a late-talking child. For the other, they do not want to think about autism because they presume that they are all healthy, or for superstitious reasons. Therefore, parents should watch their child carefully and observe their linguistic development, socialization (social interactions), and mental development (learning and thinking). Throughout the podcast, our guest has emphasized the importance of an early diagnosis and evaluation of the different skills of the child, as well as working with the child to improve those lacking skills.

Khuvit’s painting

Covid-19 Impacts on Autism

The impacts are harsh. Her son – Khuvit – studies at the Anima Art School, which is named after the well-known artist Yadamsuren. Before the pandemic, Khuvit used to be living in the art world (drawing and listening to music) at the art school. Now he stays bored in his room and, just for a moment, sniffs fresh air through the window. He seems sucked back into isolation. From an educational perspective, repetition is most important for children with disabilities to move forward and develop. Altangerel sighed heavily, the pandemic is affecting all children with disabilities – their learning is in regress. Since 2015, Khuvit is studying at the Anima Art School, one of the few art schools that welcome children with disabilities.

This month is the international Autism Awareness Month. Altangerel and her colleagues have been working tirelessly to educate many people to understand the specific challenges of children on the autistic spectrum. Many of her activities have been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic situation. We hope things get back to normal, the association resumes the educator training, and her son Khuvit and many other children with autism can go back to their schools. And, we could not wait to see Khuvit’s paintings. Yes, we are all different, but we should respect and help each other, as Altangerel reasons throughout the podcast.

The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia.

Posted in Education, Health, Human Rights, Mendee Jargalsaikhan, People with Disabilities, Podcast, Social Issues | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: COVID19 in Ulaanbaatar – Mass Testing and Risk Areas

By Paweł Szczap

In mid-February 2021, a mass testing program for COVID-19 called Neg khaalga – Neg shinjilgee (One Door – One Test; below abbreviated as 1D1T), was implemented in Ulaanbaatar. It was undertaken in reaction to the gradual spread of the COVIC-19 virus among the inhabitants of Ulaanbaatar since December 2020. Mongolia has largely prevented the domestic spread of the virus throughout most of 2020. However, in November the number of cases connected to citizens arriving from abroad (mostly Russia and Europe) started increasing and was followed by the country’s first community cases. Recent events have also uncovered growing tensions between the people and their government, surrounding the socio-economic impact of the preventive measures, alongside a feeling of lack of a wider comprehensive strategy to curtail the spread of the epidemic. The following text offers information on the recent developments surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic in Ulaanbaatar.

According to the Mongolian Statistical Information Service (MSIS) as of April 2nd, the basic COVID-19 numbers for Mongolia were:
8841 confirmed cases
3750 treated patients
5070 recovered
12 deaths
316,986 vaccinated

According to MSIS, new daily cases peaked at 575 on March 29th. On that day the Rt (effective reproduction number) value was 1.67.

Mass Testing and Bracing for a Pandemic

In reaction to the virus’ growing presence in the country in late 2020, a nationwide lockdown was implemented between November 12th and December 11th . In mid-November Darkhan-Uul aimag was first to carry out a testing program called Neg örkh – Neg irgen  (One household – One citizen), aiming at testing one individual per every household in the aimag. Before the end of November, the program concluded. In early December, Ulaanbaatar began testing its own citizens, targeting some 70 000 households clustered around outbreak locations in 40 khoroos (basic administrative units of the capital), through a program called Neg örkh –  Neg shinjilgee (One household – One test). The spread of the virus has not been controlled and further decisive action was required.

In February 2021 a follow-up to recent testing programs was announced. This time it was a mass testing campaign, supposed to reach every household in Ulaanbaatar. It was planned for February 14-22 with a total of over 411 000 households  to be encompassed. As with the previous testing programs, it provided a default of one test per household. This way households with confirmed infections could be put under observation and the potential disease spread between social settings unique to each of the household members could be at least partially prevented. The tests used were PCR swab tests whose results could be checked online based on one’s ID number. The assumption that one test per household would guarantee a complete or at least near complete image of the size and spatial distribution of the epidemic was in itself faulty. Additionally, the program had other shortcomings (e.g. using PCR tests for mass testing, omitting underaged household members) but it deserves recognition as an impressive logistical endeavour.

The choice of these specific days to conduct the mass testing program was not accidental. February 12th marked the Lunar New Year – Mongolia’s biggest holiday, usually accompanied by en masse home visits between family members and acquaintances. Both in 2020 and 2021, a strict lockdown was introduced for the period of the New Year and following days. This February, the lockdown of Ulaanbaatar lasted February 11-23.

The overlap of the lockdown and mass testing over the holiday period was a strategic choice which both made it easier to contain the spread of the virus in a very vulnerable period and guaranteed that considerable portions of the population could be expected to stay home allowing for a more successful identification of potential outbreak locations. As collecting samples was scheduled to end before the lifting of the city-wide lockdown it also allowed to identify the endangered households and put them into isolation or quarantine before society reentered the city. In this sense, the 1D1T campaign was also planned as an integral component of the citywide lockdown with February 23rd as its end date.

The main batch of tests, carried out February 14th to 22nd along a schedule which can be seen below, was preceded by tests in nearly 120 000 households clustered around 119 locations already determined as Ulaanbaatar’s COVID-19 ‘hotbeds’(30) and risk areas (89) based on previous tests and hospital admissions.

Fig. 1 A map presenting 1D1T’s schedule

According to MSIS there were over 115 000 test carried out in Mongolia February 11-14 and a total of 415.879 tests were registered between February 11th and 25th countrywide. During a press conference briefing on the outcomes of the campaign, 523 000 citizens were said to have been encompassed by the testing campaign. The costs of the program have been estimated variously at 10 , 18,4  or 30  billion tugrik (between 1054 710 and 351 570 USD). Unaddressed discrepancies in such basic data as the number of tests and the costs of the campaign are factors contributing to a general atmosphere of insufficient transparency and information flow related to the authorities’ anti-COVID-19 measures.

Throughout the campaign 210 new infection cases were confirmed, some of them in 36 newly discovered outbreak locations. This outcome most likely means that, on top of the previously known cases (‘clustered’ in at least 30 of the 119 locations), 1D1T managed to establish 36 households in which anywhere between one and five people were infected with COVID-19. The gravity of the authorities’ narrative on the issue (in many cases single infection = outbreak) might seem exaggerated but one should remember it is precisely this kind of uncompromising approach that helped Mongolia stay COVID-free throughout most of 2020.

Fig. 2 1D1T outcomes as of 21.02.2021

Simultaneously with 1D1T’s test results coming in, data collected being was mapped onto satellite images of the city using GIS software. This was not only to simply visualize the outcomes of the tests, but also to be used as a tool in the process of modeling the development of the epidemic and the possible responses to it. The map became the ‘face’ of the anti-COVID campaign in Ulaanbaatar – multiple versions were circulated on the Internet and acted as background for press conferences.

Fig. 3 Press conference on the outcomes of the 1D1T campaign.

The data gathered throughout February 11th to 22nd, is being constantly aggregated with follow-up test results (a few updated versions of the spatial visualization have been presented to date). As can be seen and should come as no surprise, the data informs a continuity in the spatial distribution of registered cases, but also dynamic increase in the number of outbreak locations.

 According to Montsame’s video on 1D1T’s progress (dated February 21st i.e. towards the end of the testing period), 11 khoroos in three districts:
8, 16, 25, 26 in Bayanzürkh district,
2, 3, 6, 12, 13 in Chingeltei district,
16 and 18 in Sükhbaatar district were to be declared sites of increased risk of viral transmission.

Continuities observed in the data gathered since February 14th, led to officially announcing an updated list of areas of high risk. As of March 11th, the list included:

Fig. 5 Areas of increased viral transmission danger as of 11.03.2021

equalling 83 khoroos in six districts. Over 40 of them were ger district khoroos in which khashaa (courtyards) are the only or dominating land use mode. The list is subject to change , and a more recent version, shared March 23rd, contained (despite the virus’ rapid spread) only 48 khoroos distributed throughout six districts:

Fig. 6 Areas of increased viral transmission danger as of March 23rd

The second part of this text will discuss restrictions to mobility introduced in Ulaanbaatar and potential patterns of the outbreak locations’ distribution throughout the city. An extended version of both parts of this “Ulaanbaatar: COVID-19 as of March-21” summary/commentary along with other resources can be found at: https://ubstudies.wordpress.com/covid-19-in-ulaanbaatar/

About Paweł Szczap

Paweł Szczap is a Mongolist, Mongolian language translator and PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw. He mostly works with the Mongolian built environment and is currently researching Ulaanbaatar city maps and place names. He has spent over four years living in Mongolia and has on numerous occasions cooperated with the Ulaanbaatar City Museum. Previous works include research on Mongolian nationalism and the cultural impact of mining among others. He is currently developing two online projects: Ulaanbaatar Studies and Mongol hip-hop.

Posted in Health, Paweł Szczap, Public Policy, Ulaanbaatar | Leave a comment

Stability of Presidential Election System

By Julian Dierkes

In June, Mongolians will participate in a presidential election again. The electoral system has remained largely unchanged since the first free election in 1993.

In late January 2021 a conference on “Democratic Challenges in Asia and Mongolia” was virtually held at the National University of Mongolia. The event was organized by Profs. Badamdash D and Bumdari D and (virtually) brought together international and Mongolian researchers focused on democratization in Mongolia.

Among the presentations, I was very interested in Gerelt-Od’s presentation on changes in electoral systems, an issue that I have been quite interested in.

E Gerelt-Od is a professor at the Mongolian State University of Education and is a prominent commentator on Mongolia’s politics with a particular focus on party politics. He has previously written for this blog as well. His presentation focused on changes in the electoral system by which parliament has been elected over the last 30 years.

This prompted me to wonder why the system to elect the president has undergone virtually no changes! If the particular development of the Mongolian party system, including the legislation pertaining to the operation and financing of political parties has led to a four-year cycle of changes to the electoral system – including some fairly radical swings between proportional representation and majoritarian elections – why is the presidential electoral system not changed?

Electoral Systems

As readers know, I’m a sociologist. So, what do I care or know about electoral systems? Well, as a five-time election observer, I have tried to learn as much as I can about Mongolia’s recent elections and it is very obvious that the parliamentary elections have been run under different electoral systems every time.

I would note, importantly, that these every-four-year changes seem not to have been terribly confusing to voters. My sense as an election observer has always been that voters who come to the polling station know what they are doing. There seems to be very little back-and-forth between voters and election officers as voters cast their ballot. I attribute this largely to the good education work of the General Election Commission. As problematic as its – partisan-seeming – appointment mechanism may seem, the resources dedicated to voter education seem to be well-spent and voters seem to be attentive to them.

Yet, it is hard to imagine that these regular shifts are confusing in terms of the interpretation of results. It is also damaging to trust in democracy in that every change has brought more and more discussions of the partisan nature of decisions about electoral systems, i.e. many observers and voters seem to interpret the changes in electoral systems to be largely self-serving by the party that controls parliament.

Why Not the Presidential Election System?

Perhaps it seem or perhaps it even is silly to ask why the presidential election system has not undergone regular changes. After all, the very nature of that presidential election is a direct one and Mongolia remains a unitary state so there is no strong argument for alternatives to a nation-wide direct election.

But is that really true? Why not an election that has some kind of regional mechanism built in? It would not have to be as archaic, hard-to-understand and potentially anti-democratic as a the U.S. electoral college, although formerly common forms of electoral colleges have largely disappeared. But note the French presidential election as an example of a twist on a direct election. Yes, the electoral college was abandoned for the Fifth Republic in 1962, but even today the nomination of a candidate requires the support of 500+ elected officials. That is a variant on the Mongolian requirement that a party has to be represented in parliament to nominate. Both requirements effectively function to reduce the number of candidates though more so in Mongolia today than in France.

But, one could imagine a system that somehow included a component to ensure regional representation, for example a quorum for the winning candidate by region. Given some of the arguments about the parliamentary election and the need to ensure regional representation (even though MPs seem quite focused on Ulaanbaatar in their political lives), how come similar arguments are not made in the context of the presidency?

Similarly, why no more experimentation around the stages of an election. One of the surprises of the 2017 election was that it had to go to a second round after no candidate had won a majority of votes. While the requirement for more than 50% had been part of previous elections, this situation had not arisen. To make the French comparison again, French presidential elections demand a second round that reduces a larger field to two candidates only as we will see in roughly a year’s time again in 2022. But no prescribed stages have been discussed in Mongolia.

If it is partisan interested that drive changes in the electoral system, were MPP leaders just not clever enough to foresee that an MPRP candidate (N Udval) might “steal” votes from B Bat-Erdene to allow Ts Elbegdorj to win? What about M Enkhbold in 2017, at the time very much a politician that was intent on victory and not shy about manipulating systems to get his way. Did he not foresee that S Ganbaatar might take a significant portion of a protest vote? If the MPP is so clever about parliamentary elections to engineer two landslide victories in a row (2016 and 2020), how come they have not been able to win a presidential election since N Enkhbayar’s victory in 2005?

Is the Direct Election of a President Fundamentally Different from Parliamentary Elections?

So, is it silly to ask about the stability of the presidential electoral system?

Perhaps, the role of a single head-of-state is simply clearer to electorates than that of a representative body. And thus, perhaps is the election of that head-of-state even with less executive power clearer and more obvious to observers and policy-makers.

Take the Kyrgyz example: a succession of crises and doubts about presidential power keep leading to a reinstatement of presidential power. Or, take the U.S. Presumably, the spurious claim to any kind of leadership that a person like Donald Trump was able to make was rooted in an understanding of political action focused on a single individual and the qualities of this individual. Even when an Electoral College sits between direct election by citizens and confirmation in a role , this direct election of an individual seems somewhat more obvious than the specifics of parliamentary elections.

So, perhaps it is not so surprising that the presidential election has not really come under any kind of review. Maybe there is a political scientist out there who is interested in comparative electoral systems who can explain the stability of that electoral system compared to Mongolian parliamentary elections.

Posted in Democracy, Elections, Party Politics, Populism, Presidential 2021, Research on Mongolia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Untold Podcast & First Guest

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Untold Stories of Persons with Disabilities in Mongolia

This is the name of our podcast and reflective blogspot. According to the National Statistics Office of Mongolia, 107.1 thousand of us are considered as persons with disabilities. A whole shelf-full of fine reports, studies, and statistics was produced. The government documents throw around catchy phrases and make promises to people with disabilities and also, officials give speeches at workshops, conferences, and designate special days recognizing people with disabilities. But most of these do not capture the true stories, dreams, hopes, challenges, and struggles they experience in their everyday life. In our society, an understanding of disability is hindered by stigmatization and stereotypes, which then affect these people’s life in various ways. This creates an artificial barrier in society. Therefore, we need to let people know about their stories that have been left untold. We are honored to have Mr. Battulga Ganbaatar as our first guest and the following is an attempt to capture his stories.

Guest of the UNTOLD podcast Battulga Ganbaatar, MIFIP Project Coordinator Sainbuyan Munkhbat; Photo: Batbold Yondonrenchin, FES Mongolia

Shock, Devastation, and Awakening 

A car accident turned a young man’s life upside down. Shock, depression, and even an attempted suicide. He felt ashamed and was afraid to step out because he might run into his friends and acquaintances. One day, his parents learned about Mr. A. Khash – a host at the MGLRadio – who was launching a campaign to find and talk to people who were abandoned, depressed, and had lost hope. Mr. Khash visited the young man, Battulga, once or twice a week, and he brought other people along to share their stories and even celebrated the New Year together. After almost three years, Battulga realized that he must socialize. During these long and hard years, he learned the value of life, family, perseverance, and other things that would inspire him. However, he realized that if his parents had not known about Mr. Khash, or if Mr. Khash had not started his goodwill campaign, there would not have been any other specialist or organizations to help him go through this tough stage in his life. While thinking about the past, Battulga sighed heavily and said that he did not know if there was psychological counselling available at the hospitals.

Schools, Job Hunt, and NGO

Because of the devastating accident, he didn’t continue university from the third year. Now the first task he set for himself was to get a professional degree. In 2012, Battulga graduated in accounting from the Zasagt Khan Institute. Upon graduation, he tried to find a job. Battulga applied to several places, but the work environment was not right for him. He identified three aspects of the work environment that prevented people with disabilities from successfully adjusting to their work. The first one being infrastructure. The company that offered him a job was located on the third floor, yet the building did not have a lift, and was not wheelchair accessible, and furthermore, there was no toilet for people with special needs. The other problem is cultural. The people – managers and co-workers – should have an inclusive attitude and knowledge about people with disabilities, Battulga explains. It is easy to create several jobs for people with disabilities, and for wealthy companies, to construct a barrier-free infrastructure. The most important aspect is sustainability – an organizational culture that promotes a friendly working atmosphere for people with disabilities. So, he joined the Mongolian National Association of Wheelchair Users, where he met his spouse, and later, worked as a project manager in the Tugeemel Hugjil, a non-governmental organization that promotes the independent living for people with disabilities.

Public Transportation for the Public Movement 

In 2014, not a single bus was equipped to serve wheelchair users in the capital city. Battulga joined his colleagues to create a social movement – “Public Transportation for the Public” – to facilitate the use of public transportation for people with disabilities. Members of this campaign, including the Tugeemel Hugjil (NGO), protested and clashed with the police until the city authorities listened to their demands. The city authorities agreed and quickly purchased 20 buses, which were equipped to transport passengers with wheelchairs. However, they only run along the city centre and drivers are very reluctant to take wheelchair passengers, according to Battulga. In order to load or unload the wheelchair, the bus needs to drive into the bus stop pocket and dock at the sidewalk. It would take extra effort for the bus driver to force away those cars stopping or even parked illegally at the bus stop, and then get back to the lane mostly jammed in Ulaanbaatar’s (UB) traffic. Simultaneously, the drivers are under time pressure to get paid. Battulga’s last experience of using this fully equipped bus was terrible – especially, the driver’s attitude. He was shouting at him and asked if he could stand up and pull himself into the bus quickly. That was the only time he used the bus.

Eye Opening Trips in Japan and United States 

Before travelling abroad, Battulga accepted things as they were given and thought the life of a disabled person should be like this. But things are different in Japan and the United States. He was lucky to visit Japan through a trip funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. He shared his two observations that touched him the most in Japan. First, him seeing a student with Down syndrome studying in the regular classroom. He was aided by a nurse and a special educator – who took notes for him and helped him to participate in classroom activities. Studying alongside each other, these young children experience the needs of their classmate with special needs. This will shape their attitude differently. The other was a business incubation centre for people with disabilities at the local district. This centre provided consulting and workspace for only those who wanted to be entrepreneurs for 45 days. In contrast to Japan, his experience in the United States was different. He interned at the Center for Independent Living in Washington, DC for 45 days as a participant in the Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD) program. On the first day, he was lost at one of the metro stations and realized that no one was coming to offer him assistance unless he asked for it. In Mongolia, people perceive a disabled person as vulnerable – and most of the time, offer their help. In contrast, the strict enforcement of disability laws and acts in the United States requires all facilities and infrastructure to be accessible; thus, protecting the human dignity of people with disabilities and ensuring that they can participate in society

Policies, Laws, and Regulations

Our discussions immediately led to policies, laws, and regulations to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Laws are declaratory, weakly enforced, and the people who make these policies do not understand the needs of people with disabilities, Battulga sighed. Mongolia joined the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009 and passed the ‘Law on the Rights of Disabled People’ in 2016. Since then, many regulatory changes have not passed. For instance, the 2016 law declares that the state will provide the master’s degree education for free, but his friend could not claim this entitlement. Officials at the government and university simply responded that the relevant regulation had not been approved. At the moment, the government officials are drafting the amendments to the ‘Law on Education’ to promote equal education. The sad fact is that these officials do not realize the need of inclusive education and use financial and bureaucratic constraints as an excuse to drop such proposals. Battulga stresses the importance of starting the inclusive education, rather than continuing the separate educational environment for children with disabilities. One point, which needs to get into minds of current Members of Parliament, is Battulga’s suggestion to enact an anti-discriminatory law against all types of discrimination against race, ethnicity, gender, disability, language, and culture. This law must be enforced strictly to create an equal, inclusive society.

Impact of Covid-19 on People with Disabilities

He mentioned a poignant tweet about people with disabilities during the pandemic – nothing has changed the lifestyle of the disabled person, especially those who spend days at home because of the cold weather and unfriendly infrastructure. Then, Battulga wonder if the current pandemic quarantine rules leave room for people with disabilities, or if there is a specific regulation for them. Yes, it is a vital concern – some must use wheelchairs, some need to have a caregiver, and others require specific medical facilities. Also, we do not know how people who need to visit regularly for giving medical care and medicine would be affected by the extreme lockdown. These are important concerns that must be carefully thought out and accommodated by the authorities and professionals.

Solutions 

Our guest’s insightful, candid discussion seems to lead to one major solution for changing the society’s attitude towards people with disabilities. He passionately argues that if we introduce and strictly enforce the anti-discriminatory law and other related regulations in the next 10 and 20 years, it would construct appropriate social standards and rights attitudes toward people with disabilities. He cannot remember any class or social studies textbook that provides knowledge about different types of disabilities and their specific needs. In secondary school, he never interacted with children with disabilities. Battulga firmly believes that if we provide this type of knowledge and experience to children when they are in kindergarten and schools, they will understand the people with disabilities. One of them will be a doctor, construction engineer, lawyer, and Member of Parliament. They will know the needs of their classmates. If the bus driver or an official who is working on the amendment of the ‘Education Law’ had such knowledge and experience, Battulga would have been telling us how he enjoys riding the bus, or how schools are becoming more inclusive than they have been during the socialist period. Finally, he said that barrier-free infrastructure is not only for people with disabilities, but it also has a universal design and is multifunctional. The sidewalk or washroom could be used by elderly, ones with canes and clutches, parents with infants, and all others.

Sainbuyan and I struggled to give a name to this invincible fighter, who also shares our unrealistic dream of going to Mars and wants to create a tourism policy which would promote Mongolia as the most inclusive tourism destination for people with disabilities after his study in Australia. He did not give up his fight for the Australian Awards Scholarship until he won the scholarship. Later, we learned that he is a pretty good singer, who surprised many at the 2013 Universe Best Songs.

The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia. We would like to thank Yongmin Lee, who agreed to be our first proof-reader.

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Presidential Election Outlook

By Julian Dierkes

Parties will nominate candidates my May 2 before Mongolians will vote on a new president on June 9, 2021.

Depending on the outcome of the election this will be the 5th or 6th president since the democratic revolution. I fully expect that the election will run as smoothly as previous elections have run, though that continuity also implies that there will be many complaints about election fraud.

At the broadest level, I do not see any candidates running or winning who would bring about significant departures from past policies. That is not to say that the prospective candidates are not very different in personalities and in the style in which they would govern, but within the limited range of decisions that the president makes, all the likely candidates will be relatively similar as they have been in the past.

Constitutional and Election Changes

Following the November 2019 amendments, this next president will be elected for a single term for six years and will thus serve until 2027. Note that the change in the duration of the term will mean that the next presidential election will come three years after/one year before a parliamentary election, thus breaking the patter of following a year after the parliamentary vote.

Candidates will have to be at least 50 years old.

Unlike the 2020 parliamentary election, Mongolians living abroad will be able to cast a ballot by submitting absentee ballots to Mongolian missions abroad.

Mongolian People’s Party

When U Khurelsukh abruptly resigned as Prime Minister, my ultimate conclusion was that he did so with an eye toward the presidential election. While Pres Battulga seems to have thought that Su Batbold might be a likely nominee some weeks ago, it currently seems like Khurelsukh is very likely to be the MPP’s nominee.

To be nominated, Khurelsukh will have to resign from the party, of course, and thus also relinquish his position as chairman of the party. Given the MPP’s super-majority in parliament, the default would be for the party chairman to also be the prime minister (and vice versa). L Oyun-Erdene will certainly want to try to also be elected as party chairman. This give him a strong stake in the election as prime minister since the possibility of a Khurelsukh defeat would make the party leadership picture somewhat more muddled.

Khurelsukh Candidacy

In the Fall I would have still said that Khurelsukh’s chances at being elected were very good. He cruised to a re-election victory in last year’s parliamentary election and that victory seemed like an endorsement of his leadership particularly in efforts to combat air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, but also in Mongolia’s battle against COVID. It’s that latter aspect that makes his victory seem less certain now and perhaps more dependent on the developments of the coming weeks and months regarding outbreaks and vaccination.

In international comparisons, Mongolia had seemed quite successful largely through decisive measures and the closing of the few entry points in Spring of 2020. But that success fell apart a bit in November when local transmission started and it has been a see-saw process of declining and rising-again infections since. Even though impact in Mongolia has been relatively minor, the same kind of strange dynamics of lockdown fatigue, impatience for a re-opening and debates about vaccination priorities are playing out in Mongolia as elsewhere in the world. Toward late March now, it seems like an increase in infections along the lines of what is happening in Europe may be likely. How PM Oyun-Erdene will respond and how Mongolians will react to that response seems likely to have an impact on Khurelsukh’s chances in the election.

President Khurelsukh?

As I wrote above, a transition from Pres Battulga to a Pres Khurelsukh would not be abrupt in policy terms. It would turn the super-majority that the MPP holds in parliament into a general mega-majority because it would give the MPP the three highest offices and thus control of the National Security Council and would – presumably – reduce any likelihood of conflict between the president and the prime minister/parliament.

Khurelsukh’s own military background might make him more interested in the military than previous presidents have been, but that would not really be likely to lead to a change in policy. In foreign policy where the Battulga presidency has seen a significant decline in Mongolia’s relevance to the world, Khurelsukh is unlikely to make much of a change. His personal preferences might drive less of his activities and perhaps he would follow the examples of MPP foreign minister in re-engaging Third Neighbours, but he doesn’t seem to be a personality that really emphasizes international relations in the way that Pres. Elbegdorj did, for example. His response to crises (flashpoints with China like language policy or, at some point, Dalai Lama succession) might be more careful, measured and predictable than Pres. Battulga’s.

There’s little in his tenure as prime minister to suggest that he would attempt to use the mega-majority as a springboard to more personal power a la various “strong men”.

Democratic Party

Who knows at this point? The DP really seem to lose their mojo with the parliamentary election last year and protracted leadership battles since then. It is hard to imagine that the party would rally behind Battulga in a re-election bid, in fact it seems uncertain that the party would even nominate him. There does not seem to be a clear front-runner for the candidacy should the DP not nominate Battulga, but his nomination in 2017 was also not quite expected and look what happened then!

Candidate Battulga

And it’s not only the DP nomination that may be an obstacle to a re-election bid. While the constitutional amendments in 2019 ultimately gained Pres Battulga’s support and that was interpreted to mean that the change in the presidential term to a single, but longer term would allow him to stand for re-election, that appears to be ambiguous. The constitutional question in part circles around a determination of whether the amendments re-set the clock on the presidential term, so that Battulga would enter not to be re-elected but to be elected under new circumstances. If he were to be nominated, constitutional shenanigans would almost certainly ensue.

If not the DP, would another party nominate him? I could certainly imagine N Enkhbayar negotiating a deal that would trade a nomination (thumbing his nose at the MPP) for his own reinstatement for future elections. But, the perennially-talked-about re-merger of the MPP and the MPRP is also, once again, um, being talked about.

Battulga would be free of the whiff of a failing COVID response since his role has been quite limited. He is also relatively free of any notable successes and even after four years in office, I can still not identify a specific policy or initiative that he is pursuing. Of course, Mongolian voters might see that very differently.

Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party

Who knows at this point? Maybe Ulaanbaatar taxi drivers could tell us, but I am unable to visit…

XYH

One of the great successes of the election of XYH’s T Dorjkhand to parliament was that representation of the party gives it the chance to nominate a candidate for president.

In February, the party turned to a public nomination process and some strong (if ineligible due to an outrageously restrictive, but near-universal citizenship requirement) candidates emerged:

Dorjkhand himself is (also) ineligible for being too young. While electoral coalitions can always emerge, I certainly expect XYH to nominate a candidate and maybe they’ll make a bold choice. I have to admit that I liked some of the rumoured possibilities like former MP Oyun (though she seems not to be inclined) or Jargal de Facto. Very hard to even guess at what the chances of a very prominent and credible XYH candidate might be and whether such a candidate would lead to vote-splitting with the DP (depending on their candidate).

If a XYH candidate were to be elected, that could bring some significant change in political style to instigate a change in political culture, but policy differences would be somewhat limited.

Posted in Democracy, Democratic Party, Foreign Policy, Military, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, National Labor Party, Presidential 2021 | Tagged | Leave a comment