By Julian Dierkes
Is it time to worry seriously about the state of democracy in Mongolia?
Mongolian Democracy in International Context
Globally, democracy appears to be declining. After the euphoria of the post-Cold War spread of democracy and various seasonal and coloured revolutions around the world, there seems to be an overall trend of backsliding. This is prominent documented in attempts to measure the state of democracy globally, such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index. The 2016 edition of the Freedom in the World report is entitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom under Pressure“.
Seen in this global context, Mongolia is a bright spot.
In a regional context where democracy is declining across SE Asia (except for Myanmar, perhaps), for example, and not deeply institutionalized across the Asian continent, Mongolia remains the only post-state socialist democracy in Asia.
It is important to take note of this exceptional status of Mongolia, especially given the rather tough neighbourbood that it finds itself in in terms of good governance and democracy with its sometimes overbearing immediate neighbours Russia and China.
Note that it is Mongolian dedication to democracy that I usually emphasize in discussions outside of Mongolia. Such discussions have always acknowledged the numerous challenges and contradictions that are inherent to democracy, and the fact that most democracies continuously search for improvements to electoral systems, the nature of parties, and the engagement of voters. Mongolia is no exception to this, nor are Canada or Germany.
Mongolian Democracy in a Domestic Context
While it is important to emphasize Mongolia’s democratic achievements when comparing them to other democratic and non-democratic countries, it is also important to take stock of the country’s democratization in the context of Mongolians’ aspirations. Here, recent polls (SantMaral | IRI) seem to suggest clearly that while Mongolians are devoted to the idea of democracy, they are (increasingly) unhappy with the political institutions that govern the country.
While these doubts about political institutions have existed for some time, there are some new elements to concerns about the trajectory of democracy. For me these concerns centre on
- a new sense of fear and intimidation of critical voices
- more and more blatant manipulation of the electoral process
- more and more blatant disregard for the courts and the constitution
- the ongoing absence of policy or, indeed, political debates.
Let’s go from the most general to the more specific concerns.
The Absence of Political Debates
Elections and the general political process are intended to give citizens the opportunity to determine the direction of developments of the nation. In many democracies this expression of the citizens’ will is mediated by political parties who stand for particular ideologies or approaches to national development.
Elections are not intended as a contest over who can secure power for power’s sake, but rather for the sake of seeing through a particular vision for the country.
Popular and fringe political parties in Mongolia have not developed strong ideological or policy-related profiles over the 25 years of democracy. While the General Election Commission is currently examining election platforms, I don’t think anyone is expecting radically different proposals by the DP from the MPP, for example. Even on the most consequential questions facing Mongolia, for example regarding the development and governance of mineral resources, the parties do not have distinct positions. Recall as an example the 2008 campaign: The DP offered a cash payment of₮1mio to each citizen. The then-MPRP trumped this with a ₮1.5mio offer. Were these different conceptualizations of Mongolia’s future? Differences between the parties, including the smaller parties, often mirror this past campaign promise in that they do not speak to a different approach to policy-making or different policies to be pursued.
Given the lack of political profiles among the parties, voters are deprived of the opportunity to make their views on important questions heard. This leads to the apparently wide-spread sense that voters do not have any real alternatives to chose from. This is not a new nor an unusual feature of Mongolian democracy, but in the current context of changes to the electoral system, it is a feature that is ever clearer and where there are few visible changes.
Note, however, that it is in the hands of Mongolian voters to change this by voting for political options that are defined by policy (differences), as long as the electoral process allows them to do so. That opportunity is looking more remote for this coming election, however.
Disregard for the Courts and the Constitution
The track record of Mongolia’s governments in terms of respecting the courts is somewhat spotty. Of course, democratic governments all over the world disagree with courts’ decisions. That is perfectly fine. All constitutions provide a process by which legislatures are able to overrule court decisions as the legislature represents the voice of the people, the courts are only meant to adjudicate between conflicting views of the law. However, it is the process by which legislatures and governments are able to respond to court decisions that is important. A prerequisite for this process is an independent judiciary, that is a court system where judges are respected and where they do not need to fear retaliation by the government if they overturn a law.
Of course, judges are not above the law themselves.
However, over the past six months we’ve seen instances of the dismissal of judges that are ostensibly based on misdeeds, but fairly transparently are motived by political opposition. That is a very dangerous precedent because it opens the courts to manipulation. There’s no point to courts that can be manipulated politically.
The same disregard for the courts found an expression in the brief flurry of a constitutional debate late in 2015. While discussions of constitutional structures are important and 25 years seems like an entirely appropriate time to have such discussions, no real discussions occurred. There were proposals, including on the important question of the balance of power between the presidency, the cabinet and the State Great Khural. But the speed with which these proposals were dropped suggests that the proposal was primarily rooted in political purposes, perhaps a side skirmishes to distract from more important and pressing decisions, rather than a genuine constitutional discussion.
Casual and half-baked constitutional proposals are not likely to instil a respect for the constitution which does, of course, provide the most basic set of rules that govern political processes.
The High Court decision that proportional representation is not constitutional also strikes me as primarily political rather than judicial. Obviously, there are very legitimate debates about different electoral systems and how the impact that the wording of the constitution has on this choice. Ironically, Canada is debating a shift to proportional representation just as Mongolia has been abandoning it.
But it should be remembered that stability in the electoral system is a virtue most of the time. It means that voters understand how they’re voting and that results are more easily anticipated and thus more legitimate. That is not to say that there should be no discussion about alternatives; it would be good to recall, however, that all electoral systems have biases and flaws, so endless tinkering will not bring a perfect system. For Mongolia, the coming election will be run under the 2004 electoral system of 76 first-past-the-post constituencies which means that the last three elections (2008, 2012, 2016) will have all been conducted under different systems.
Regarding the High Court decision, I also have to find it rather curious that the Ikh Khural was elected in 2012, sat as a legislature for four years and just 2 months before the next election its constitutional legitimacy is challenged? Is there a legitimate argument that does not see this as politicking?
Manipulation of the Electoral Process
The broader electoral system is one of the challenges that Mongolian voters will be facing, but there have been numerous other changes that look like political manipulation to preserve power, not a deepening of democracy. The DP and MPP as the largest and best-organized parties are the likely beneficiaries of these changes and appear to be colluding in bringing these changes about. The switch to majoritarian districts is thus one that is likely to be a disadvantage to smaller parties and independents.
Sure, a shortening of the campaign period to 18 days means that less money will be spent, but it also gives an advantage to incumbents and well-established political forces, including the two big parties. And given that there has been little effort to reform campaign/political finance otherwise (despite some recurring proposals to do so), it’s hard not to think of this as primarily a move to lock out independents and smaller parties.
The fact that candidates are not allowed to make appearances in their constituencies until the beginning of the campaign period also gives an advantage to incumbents who are allowed to continue to go about their (political) business.
It seems like no efforts are being spared to keep out any upstart parties and independents. While the XUN Party has self-destructed through internal conflict to some extent, the fact that it is being excluded from the campaign largely on formal grounds of late submission of paperwork, etc. speaks volumes about the seriousness of the effort to keep smaller parties out. Of course, administrative requirements and provisions of the election law should be enforced, but why have these provisions been put in place in the first place? Have they been included to promote democracy or to limit it?
The same argument might apply to the MPRP and N Enkhbayar’s candidacy in particular. I am not arguing that former president Enkhbayar has been a force for democratization and general well-being before or since his criminal conviction, but he continues to be the preferred political option of a significant number of Mongolians. He, like any candidate, needs to adhere to administrative and legal requirements, but by the same token, these requirements should not be designed to deliberately limit democratic choices.
All this is happening, as I have argued above, in the absence of political programs from the DP and MPP and thus appears to be a fairly naked bid for the preservation of power.
A New Sense of Intimidation
What is most startling and entirely new to my experience in Mongolia is a sense of dread and sometimes even fear among Mongolian friends, especially journalists and public figures. Whether or not the allegations about the political use of the security apparatus are true or not (or if they can ever be true given that they trade in the currency of conspiracies, etc.), the mere fact that some Mongolians now appear to be afraid about speaking out is a terrible development. For this, only the current government and thus the DP can be blamed since they (legitimately) control the security apparatus.
For me that development started around the death/murder of Bolormaa, the former editor of the Mongolian Mining Journal. As far as I know, we still have not been given an official and conclusive answer on the question of whether she was murdered or not. That in itself is worrying, but it is also a sign of the disregard for critical voices. Bolormaa had become increasingly outspoken in her writing and criticism of corruption prior to her death. The sense that this might have been the ultimate motivation for her murder – IF it was murder – seems widespread.
A much less extreme and traumatic step was the dismissal of Jargal De Facto by MNB. While all kinds of official reasons were given, this seemed to be the consequence of Jargal calling out political interference in the courts.
Bolormaa and Jargal de Facto have in common that they are journalists that have established themselves as independent and critical voices. Not critical in a partisan way, but rather calling on politicians to not be corrupt and to be dedicated to the tasks that they have been elected too, criticisms that an independent and free press is essential for in democracies.
At an event during my last trip to Ulaanbaatar, I was taken aside and asked to recall the provisions of the election law in choosing how to present my views. That is entirely appropriate. When I speak in Mongolia, I am obviously subject to the provisions of Mongolian law and it is good to be reminded of that. However, I also take note that this was the first time that anyone had ever felt like such a reminder is needed.
Why? Because the election law bans comments on the likely result of the election and any comments that might be interpreted as benefitting or denigrating any parties that are running in the election.
I have always thought that some of the provisions of Mongolian election laws have been innovative and worth considering. The ban on polling is an example of such a provision as polls do certainly sway voters in elections elsewhere. However, when the intention to allow citizens to submit their vote without any undue influence by polling and others’ opinions turns into a restriction on analyses of the political scene and discussions of the implications of electoral outcomes, that goes too far in my mind.
In sum, I am worried about the fate of two essential ingredients of any democracy in Mongolia:
- free, lively, unencumbered political debate
- elections as an expression of the populations’ intentions for the future of their country.