Lingering anti-Sinic sentiments in post-Communist Mongolia: Why dislike the Chinese?

Just sharing a long-waited working paper on anti-Chinese sentiments in Mongolia.  The following is the abstract, for the full paper – here is the link.

Sino-Mongolian relations have been amicable ever since the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian rapprochements of the late 1980s, after over three decades of hostility. Today Mongolia and the People’s Republic of China have broadened relations in all areas of cooperation, returning to a state of relations similar to the 1950s. However, in Mongolia, anti-Chinese discourses continue to appear in daily conversations, the news media, in Internet comments, literature, hip-hop, and even graffiti. This paper advances four reasons for such lingering anti-Chinese sentiment. First, like any small state, Mongolia remains vulnerable to the dominance of its two large neighbours. Memories of colonization are still vivid. Second, Mongolians, like many other ethnic groups, are concerned with the population’s “purity of blood.” Third, the communist regime’s use of anti-Chinese sentiment during the Sino-Soviet conflicts of the 1960s-70s has had a lingering impact on the views and attitudes of Mongolians toward China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture. The anti-Chinese myths and narratives that were institutionalized have not been critically analyzed. Finally, various external and internal actors use anti-Chinese sentiment to forward their business interests.

Posted in China, Mendee Jargalsaikhan | 2 Comments

Policy Series: Failure of Not Strengthening the Parliament

Under the 1992 Constitution, the parliament is supposed to become the state policy black box.  It was empowered to develop, approve, and enforce state policies that would strengthen the country’s sovereignty, maintain its domestic stability, facilitate the economic development, and more importantly, protect core principles of democracy (i.e., our rights and rule of law).  But, now we’re already losing trust in the legislature. Firstly, we witness increasingly polarized debates without any subtantial studies and facts. Secondly, we see intense factionalized fightings over the political posts, election laws, and allocations of funds, loans, and bonds. Thirdly, we see erratic temptations of changing laws, rules, and regulations even without giving justifiable reasons.  Finally, we now can rationally expect what would be major issues for any parliaments in pre-election years (i.e., the changing the constitution, election laws, and revision to the state budget) and post-elections (i.e., dividing up ministries and agencies, cancelling/revising previous economic/financial decisions, and typical ‘pork and barrel’ politics).  This was the case for all past parliaments from 1992. No surprise, same applies to present one.

So, why our parliament is becoming less respected, weak, and the easiest target for the political blame game?  Why it moves from the most powerful constitutional institution to more like ‘symbolic’ one?  Why the law (policy) making institution becomes ‘law (policy) breaking’ one?  Are our ‘esteemed parliamentarians’ trading the power of the parliament for their parochial, short-term interests?  So, what the parliament should do now to regain its real policy-making power and our trust?

We all know – if parliamentarians respect the rule of law and hold their temptations of ‘cheating’ from their own approved rules, the parliament would easily gain the public trust. But, the overall structure appears to encourage cheating; therefore, even a good principled person talks about moral principles and patriotic deeds, but acts in favour of parochial interests.  The result is mistrust and fragmentation.

So, how can we get out of this proverbial crabs in a barrel scenario without dictatorship, oligarchy, revolutions, and foreign interventions?  We need to improve our institutions – especially, the parliament.  Our esteemed members should unite on common objectives of the national sovereignty, development, and democracy (i.e., human rights and rule of law) while constraining their tactical (may be strategic) parochial interests.

In this regard, a key solution seems to me to invest and to empower the parliamentary policy making and enforcing capacity.  It’s constitutionally given, but neglected.

Let’s learn from the institutionalization process of the President.  The 1992 Constitution intentionally made the presidential institution symbolic and deal-broker (for the national interests) along with some rights of checks and balances.  As a result, Mongolia didn’t slide into ‘super-presidentialism’ which is common in most post-communist, esp., post-Soviet, cases and all our presidents played quite constructive roles during major crises (e.g., hunger strike of 1994, July 1 in 2008).  But, they made the presidential institution – the most bureaucratic and influential one.  Each president enlisted leading experts (as advisors); expanded the National Security Council, its secretariat and think tank; enshirned its power in judiciary and foreign affairs; and brought all security organizations under the presidential influence (esp., the president’s power to confer the highest ranks for leaders of these security institutions).

In contrast, the parliament did not increase its bureaucracy and even stripped numerous executive power-checking rights for others.  Yes, the parliament has 8 standing committees, 10 sub-committees, and secretariat with 9 special departments.  But, the real question is – do they matter in the parliamentary policy-making process?  How much autonomy and power does the parliament give to its own bureaucracy?  Or, the parliament and its members simply use them for daily secretarial, clerical, and protocol purposes?

The fault of our parliament is unable to unite and empower its own bureaucracy to regain its chief policy-making power and to increase the public trust.  To do that, parliament members need to get over their parochial interest and self-defeating internal bickering.

The law (policy) making is a complicated process.  First, we need to state the problem and identify main causes.  Here the parliament needs to provide greater autonomy for its standing committee members and staffers.  They must be empowered to question all stakeholders, including outside experts.  Second, we need to develop short, mid, and long-term solutions and attempt to calculate its possible intended and un-intended consequences.  Parliament members could not do that because they are constrained by multiple interests (party, business, local, and personal).  The parliamentary staffers with help of experts could perform these tasks of developing and evaluating different options.  Finally, we need to follow up our policy outcomes for years.  Parliament members couldn’t do that because they are temporary political creatures and overwhelmed with their interests.  Therefore, the parliament needs to build up and empower its own non-partisan bureaucracy – that would build up the parliamentary institutional memory, knowledge, and expertise, and serve as gate-keepers against parochial, corporate, and ad-hoc interests.

Otherwise, our policy-making process will still be failure and victim of parochial interests.

First, repeated elections of parliament members would not provide the policy continuity.  Just take an example of this parliament, there are 28 new members, 19 members in their second term, 16 in their third, and 12 in their fourth and more terms. Previous parliaments had quite well-balanced representation of new and old members.  Have we seen the policy-continuity and responsible policy-making?

Second, increasing the number of individual staffers also couldn’t contribute for the good policy-making.  From 1992, parliament members continuously adding funding and numbers of their staffers.  But, they are also political creatures – more concerned with their own options and interests – than contributing to the institutional memory of the legislature.

Third, increasing the secretarial capacity of the parliamentary secretariat without adding more powerful policy experts will not strengthen the parliament.  Even though the current parliamentary secretariat has many fine policy experts, they would not stand for the good policy making unless the parliament provides the protection from the political and business interests.

The parliamentary non-partisan staffers – who are protected from political and business interests – could help the parliament to ensure proper policy-making and monitoring capacity.  Otherwise, we will continue to operate on the USB (flash drive) memories of parties, factions, and influential politicians.

There are many policy issues are waiting for parliamentary non-partisan policy reviews, the followings are just examples.

1. The control and use of the security, law-enforcement organizations and tax authority: as we have witnessed explicit and implicit attempts by politicians, parties, and factions to insert their control and influence in security organizations and to use them for their own interests.  The politicization and fractionalization of the security, law-enforcement, and tax organizations are the most dangerous phenomena for any states [examples are abundant].  Now it is time for the parliament to re-examine the entire set of policies of institutionalization of security, law-enforcement, and taxation agencies to keep them outside of domestic politics and committed for the public good.

2. The investment agreements especially in mining: the parliament could set up an independent commission to examine the past mining investment agreements, including the OT, for the policy-making (learning) purposes.  The commission along with parliamentary staffers should able to question and examine all past agreements and evaluate the state policy-making procedures in order to improve its own policy-making processes and to train policy experts.  The commission results should not be used for political purposes; therefore, the commission could be headed prominent politicians – outside of the current politics.  Otherwise, we don’t learn anything from our past and most current policy-making expertise.

3. The public service is another aspect, which dearly needs non-partisan review.  The current politicization (could even we called, privatization of ministries and agencies by parties, factions, and politicians) of the public service adds to public mistrust of politicians and parties.  If public servants, especially, those are entering into service, lose their fate in principle of rational bureaucracy (based on professional merits), it is hard to expect good policies and dedications.  Changing and re-appointing political appointees to the ministerial, vice-ministrial, and directorial posts are not the solution.  They would be the part of the problem – deepens the current legitimacy crisis. [There are many examples in our neighbourhood – both good and bad – in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.]

In the past, there were attempts to investigate and conduct open hearings on the July 1 riots and anti-corruption reporting, but members used them for their own political purposes.  But, now it is a time for our politicians to rise above parochial interests and focus on national imperatives – by strengthening and empowering the law (policy) making capacity of the parliament.  More importantly, parliamentarians need to cure their ‘let’s change it’ syndrome.  If parliamentarians keep changing rules without thinking (i.e., not asking hard questions), parliamentarians are (non)intentionally propagating the culture of ‘rule of chaos’ – not ‘rule of law’.  If parliamentarians couldn’t strengthen their own base, it will breed the ground for unstable domestic politics, emergence of authoritarian figures, and may be even foreign intervention.

At the macro level of international relations (i.e., systemic level), we clearly see how our own domestic polarization and fragmentation makes the state (a Mongolian state) a weak actor to deal with other state and non-state actors (i.e., multi-national corporations, international institutions).  If we look our domestic political structure at micro-level (i.e., domestic level), we could easily see how parochial interests of parliamentarians deteriorate the institutional capacity of the parliament.  Now it is a time for parliamentarians to strengthen the policy (law)-making capacity of the parliament.

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Saikhanbileg Cabinet Nominations

After about a month of self-inflicted turmoil, the government of Mongolia is heading for some stability again. With a supercoalition of all parties seemingly in place, PM Saikhanbileg has now nominated the following individuals for cabinet positions:

[On Dec 8, as the State Great Khural is preparing to vote on these nominations, we’ve added some biographical information on the nominees below]

Prime Minister (Монгол Улсын Ерөнхий Сайд): Ch Saikhanbileg (DP: Polarstar Faction)
Born 1969
Moscow State University for the Humanities (History), National University of Mongolia (Law), George Washington University (Law)
Russian and English
MP 1996-2000, 2008-present
Min of Education 1998-2000
Cabinet Secretary 2012-14

Deputy Prime Minister (Шадар сайд): U Khurelsukh (MPP)
Born 1968
Defense University of Mongolia (Political Science), Institute of Public Administration and Development (Public Administration), National University of Mongolia (Law)
MP 2000-2008
Min of National Emergency Agency 2004-06
Min in charge of Professional Inspections 2006-08
MPP Gen Secretary 2008-2012

Cabinet Secretary (Хэрэг эрхлэх газрын дарга): S Bayartsogt (DP: Polarstar Faction)
Moscow State Univ (Economics), Foreign Trade Academy (Germany), National University of Mongolia (Law)
English, Russian, German
MP 1990-92, 1996-2000, 2004-present
Part of OT Investment Agreement negotiation team (2008-09), debated S Ganbaatar in 2013
Forced to resign as deputy speaker in 2013 after publication of $1mio offshore accounts in Cook Islands
Min of Environment 1998
Cabinet Secretary 2004-06
Finance Minister 2008-12

Minister of Environment, Green Development, and Tourism (Байгаль орчин, ногоон хөгжил, аялал жуулчлалын сайд): D Oyunkhorol (MPP)
Mongolian State Univ of Education, National University of Mongolia (Law)
English, Russian
MP 2000-04, 2008-present

Minister of Foreign Relations (Гадаад харилцааны сайд): L Purevsuren (DP: Presidential Faction)
Moscow International Relations Institute
English, German, Russian
Foreign Policy & Security Advisor to the President 2008-2014

Minister of Finance (Сангийн сайд): J Erdenebat (MPP)
Trade and Industry Institute, Academy of Administration, Mongolian Univ of Agriculture
MP 2012-present
Governor of Selenge Aimag 2008-12

Minister of Justice (Хууль зүйн сайд): D Dorligjav (DP: Presidential Faction)
Born 1959
Dep Premier 1992-96
Min of Defense 1996-98
Head of Erdenet (Mining) 2004-10
Prosecutor General 2010-2014

Minister of Industry (Аж үйлдвэрийн сайд): D Erdenebat (DP: Head of DP Caucus)
University of Polytechnics, Irkutsk
MP 2012-present
Head of DP caucus in parliament 2012-present

Minister of Defense (Батлан хамгаалахын сайд): Ts Tsolmon (Justice Coalition: MPRP)
Born 1953
Polytechnic Institute of Irkutsk, Diplomatic Academy of Moscow
English, Russian
Min of Labour 1990-92
Min of Construction and Infrastructure 2006-08
MP 2012-present

Minister of Construction and Urban Development (Барилга, хот байгуулалтын сайд): D Tsogtbaatar (MPP)
Born 1970
Moscow International Relations Institute, Australian National Univ (Law)
English, Russian
Foreign Policy & Security Advisor to the President 2000-2008
Min of Environment 2012

Minister of  Education, Culture and Science (Боловсрол, соёл, шинжлэх ухааны сайд): Lu Gantumur (DP: One Democracy)
Sandei College (Japan), Nagaoka Technology University, Japan
English, Russian, Japanese
MP 2004-present
Min of Education & Science 2012-2014

Minister of Roads and Transport (Зам, тээврийн сайд): N Tumurkhuu (MPP)
National Univ of Mongolia

Minister of Mining (Уул уурхайн сайд): R Jigjid (DP: Falcon Faction)
Born 1958
National Univ of Mongolia, Shinshu Univ, Japan,

Minister of Labour (Хөдөлмөрийн сайд): S Chinzorig (MPP)
Born 1964

Minister of Population Development and Social Welfare (Хүн амын хөгжил, нийгмийн хамгааллын сайд): S Erdene (DP: Mongolian Democratic Union Faction)
Otgontenger Univ (Law), Defense Univ of Mongolia, Management Academy
English, Russian
MP 2009-present
Minister for Population Development and Social Protection 2012-2014

Minister of Food and Agriculture (Хүнс, хөдөө аж ахуйн сайд): R Burmaa (DP: Mongolian Democratic Union Faction)
Electronic Technical Institute, Bulgaria, National Univ of Mongolia
English, Russian, Bulgarian
MP 2012-present

Minister of Energy (Эрчим хүчний сайд): D Zorigt (DP: Polar Star)
Construction & Engineering School, USSR
MP 2008-12

Minister of Health and Sports (Эрүүл мэнд, спортын сайд): G Shiilegdamba (Justice Coalition: MPRP)
Min of Environment & Tourism 2006-08

Minister of Mongolia (Монгол Улсын сайд): M Enkhsaikhan (Justice Coalition: MNDP)
Chief of Staff, President 1993-95
Prime Minister 1996-98

So, Is This a Technocratic Cabinet?

Only two ministers from Altankhuyag’s cabinet have re-nominated:  MP Lu Gantumur, acting Minister of Education, Culture, and Science, and MP S Erdene, acting Minister Population Development and Social Welfare.

“Double Deel” (давхар дээл) candidates:

  • 6 out 9 from the DP candidates
  • 2 out 6 from the MPP candidates
  • 1 out 3 from the Justice Coalition

These nominations did not satisify the public and presidential demand for “single deel.”

Two women candidates: MP R Burmaa (DP) and MP D Oyunkhorol (MPP).

Prominent politicians:

  • D Dorligjav, former Chief Prosecutor, Chairman and General Secretary of the DP, 1st deputy premier, defense minister, minister for professional inspection, and head of Erdenet Mine;
  • U Khurelsukh, former MP, General Secretary of the MPP, minister for national emergency management agency;
  • M Enkhsaikhan, former Prime Minister, MP, Chairman of the DP, presidential candidate from the DP, Chairman of the MNDP

New Generations:

  • 2 out 9 of the DP candidates are new faces in politics (R Jigjid and L Purevsuren)
  • 4 out 6 of the MPP candidates
  • 1 out 3 of the Justice candidates

It is hard to say these candidates form the more technocratic cabinet as political parties, especially the DP, promised and the public expected.


The great hope is that the supercoalition will bring some stability at least until some period close to the summer 2016 elections when it will likely fall apart to prepare for the campaign.

The hope is also that a supercoalition will shield any individual/individual party from blame for certain decisions, so perhaps this government will be more decisive. One might argue that Saikhanbileg himself might not see much glory in leading this government and that only decisive action might save the DP (and assure him of a continued political role) for the next election.

I’ve got my own wishlist of issues that the new government should tackle after immediately dealing with Oyu Tolgoi and the economic crisis.

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A Personal Wishlist for the Saikhanbileg Government

As we’re anticipating a cabinet to be formed under PM Saikhabileg and it now seems likely that a grand coalition (DP + MPP) or a super coalition (DP + MPP + Justice Coalition + CWGP) or some other configuration is likely, some focus areas for government policy over the next year (until six months before the next election) have been coming to my mind.

OT & the Economy First

Note that these are focus areas that are and should be of secondary importance in terms of immediate action which is required in various economic files. I continue to harp on my mantra that OT should be back on track before anything else happens as it is at once a medium-term fiscal fix (Phase II would generate economic activity, even in the short run, but would lead to medium-term revenue streams and be an opportunity to build capacity around that project). That should be the first and most urgent priority for the new government and the fact that a grand or super coalition will shield individual players from political blame will hopefully enable action on this file.

Other Policy Arenas that Should Receive Attention

Beyond the need for immediate economic policy action, I believe that a super coalition would make it possible to have wider political discussions, and possibly reach a consensus on some policy issues that will be essential to the long-term development of Mongolia. I present these as a list that is not ordered in terms of priorities and is very subjective in that it reflects some of my personal preferences and areas that I come into more contact with in Mongolia. Also, it’s Christmas time, so I take the right to present my personal wishlist.


Anti-corruption activities have taken on a very partisan nature under the DP government with some suggestions that these activities have even become elements in personal agendas, and that the Anti-Corruption Agency is becoming too powerful and too arbitrary with its investigative activities.

Anti-corruption activities have to be non-partisan and they have to start at the very top. I can only implore politicians and decision-makers to acknowledge how important it is for them to act on behalf of Mongolians not out of personal or corporate interest. But, beyond such moral appeals, it is important to have debates about structures that would guarantee more independent and effective anti-corruption activities in the future. Whether that would be a directly-elected anti-corruption commissioner of some kind for a limited duration with a mixed education and enforcement budget and a very ambitious transparency mandate, or a re-configuration of reporting structures to make the Anti-Corruption Agency accountable to the Ikh Khural, as well as cabinet and the President, that is not for me to decide, but I do believe very much that such a discussion would be of great potential benefit to the country’s development.

Such discussion might also head off any temptation within the MPP to take revenge on the DP for its activities of the past two years and to steer anti-corruption activities in a more productive, impactful and credible direction in the future.

Public Service

Very much linked to a discussion of anti-corruption are civil service reforms. An independent, credible, properly resourced, and reliable public service would seem to be essential to social and economic development. The current advocacy for a technocratic cabinet made of non-MPs with some subject-area expertise in their portfolios would seem to be an opening for a wider discussion of the role and importance of a competent civil service around some of the issues recently discussed by Mendee.

Unfortunately, this has been one of the areas where the DP government has fallen well short of expectations following the 2012 election in that this government has engaged in partisan appointments even more than previous governments and we have thus seen a wholesale rotation of personnel in almost all areas of the public service, down to a level of decision-making that really should not be subject to patronage appointments. Yes, vice-ministers should carry a popular mandate through elections, but department heads in ministries should be competent on their subject matter and be allowed to speak truth to political power in offering advice and direction for policy-making while also implementing political decisions faithfully.

Higher Education

The need for some independence from political appointments and decision-making is especially glaring in higher education. I first came to Mongolia some ten years ago in the hopes of establishing links between my university, UBC, and Mongolian universities around student and faculty exchanges. I endeavored to build some links for some years, but have given up on institutional linkages entirely since then, in part because I would be introduce to a new “Vice-President for International Affairs” every six months or so and start all discussions anew. This has been the experience in the ministries as well. For the universities this has meant that they have been unable to engage in the substantial institutional reforms that are necessary to transform the universities from teaching institutions under state-socialism to comprehensive institutions of higher education that engage in research as well as teaching, especially as the Academy of Sciences seems to be fading away.

Higher education will be crucial to Mongolia’s long-term development and this sector thus deserves a broader discussion and strategic decision-making.

Various models for uniting (some of the) public universities, moving them to a joint campus, etc. have been discussed, but my sense is that these discussions have contributed to uncertainty in this sector rather than spurring reforms. This sector is in urgent need of some strategic planning and follow-through on that planning.

Long-term Risky Research for Diversification

Higher education is a policy arena that certainly should see public intervention and strategic planning. Some research activities would also fall in this category.

If economic development is brought back on track in coming years, this will begin to produce resources that will allow Mongolia to consider long-term diversification. Note that I said “Mongolia” here not “the Mongolian government” or “Mongolian businesses”. This is an area for a broader social discussion as well.

However, for the greatest opportunities in terms of diversification, high risk research may be necessary. While some believe that there are low-hanging diversification fruit (ie, areas that are obvious for relatively short-term action), I have not been persuaded at all by the efforts around the Saishand industrial complex, nor by promoting UB as a financial or logistics hub.

What I have in mind here is some dedication of public resources to applied and basic research that might capitalize on some of the unique combinations of factors that Mongolia possesses. Some of these factors would include vast territory, ample sunshine, cold, etc. Even if we don’t think of sparsely-populated landscape as a competitive advantage at the moment, there may well be future applications of technology that rely exactly on that, space. What if there were some cold- and sunshine-loving bacteria or chemical processes that could play a role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions or climate change? Not an area that I specialize in at all, and investments might be entirely lost in such an area, but if there were breakthroughs in any of these areas, Mongolia would emerge as a superpower in some new area of economic activity.

How to structure such research investments? The German Fraunhofer Institutes seem like a good structure that combines basic research. But higher education reforms could also be crucial in building research capacity around such topics across the public universities, for example. Options could be some kind of X Prize-like prize offer, cooperation with other cold countries (though Mongolia is unique in the combination of cold + ample sunshine), etc. None of this would require large immediate investments, though thinking about such directions could benefit from initial brainstorming discussions with international scientists. Of course, the independence of funding-decisions from partisan and personal concerns would seem to be even more essential in a high risk area of activities.

Policy-Making Capacity

This is one of the areas I’ve been talking and thinking about for years. We’re just embarking on a series of posts that aims to think more about some of the failures of Mongolian policy-making.

It seems clear, however, that none of the sectors of society that have well-developed policy-analysis and policy-making capacity in other countries are really well-developed in Mongolia.

The parties have not engaged in policy-making that would lead to competition over their platforms and their party-internal capacity remains underdeveloped.

Parliament is under-resourced in terms of the staffing that would allow MPs to actively craft policy. The NGO world remains mostly atomized with myriad of specific, small-scale NGOs that don’t add up to sector-specific movements.

Even businesses have not evolved any effective associations or industry groups that might offer policy analysis.

Finally, the media remains stuck with still-developing journalistic standards that lead to a lot of reporting of rumour and politically-linked views, but very little policy analysis.

What can government policy do to remedy this? Well, again, discussions of more professional cabinets could be used as momentum towards a more professional public service that would offer the government more policy-making capacity.

Higher education reforms could also play a role in this. It seems odd, for example, that there isn’t some kind of publicly-funded but independent think tank within the universities that focuses on mining policy.

While additional resources devoted to MPs may be politically tricky, but I certainly think that money would be much better spent on some additional staff and research capacity attached to parliament than on a second chamber as seems to be currently suggested in the context of constitutional revisions.

A Role for “Repats”

One of the areas where policy-analysis capacity could be developed is through the integration of “repats”. An increasing number of Mongolians have been educated in developed economies/democracies, and have now embarked on professional careers. My sense from the Mongolian community here in Vancouver is that a number of them are quite interested in eventually returning to Mongolia. The two greatest obstacles to such a return are air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and their doubts about Mongolian schools for their children.

However, while air pollution and education are issues to be addressed in a focused way for all Mongolians, not just for repats (i.e. repatriates, Mongolians who return to Mongolia with the skills that expatriates would have to offer), finding ways to integrate repats into policy-making is an important task that requires some planning. Some repats may face resentments in some contexts and thus be reluctant to offer their experiences and knowledge in such contexts. Are there avenues of integration that would best utilize repats’ knowledge? Can these avenues be developed without aggravating resentments against repats?

Support for Aimag Centres

Many Aimag centres are charming small towns. I am always impressed by the infrastructure that is typically grouped around a main square, including an administrative building, a library, and a culture house.

At the same time, Ulaanbaatar is bursting at the seems, and continued migration to the city leads to additional strains on infrastructure and pollution.

While strong arguments have been made for investments in Ulaanbaatar’s infrastructure and these do seem necessary, I often get the sense that communities outside of the capital are being abandoned in the process. If some of the Aimag centres were strengthened through investments in education and health infrastructure, could these not be more viable as desirable residences, even for younger Mongolians?

Nurturing Democracy

Democracy has come a long way in Mongolia. It seems it has benefitted from two circumstances: a) the purely indigenous roots of the initial democratic revolution, and b) the construction of democratic institutions before the onset of the mining boom.

While the democratic institutions of a parliamentary democracy are intact in Mongolia, as elsewhere, challenges remain and continued vigilance to support popular support for democracy should be pursued.

President Elbegdorj’s initiatives on the building of grassroots democracy through local participation in budgetary decisions (Local Development Fund) should be reinforced through further activities.

In the long run, parties should build their policy-making capacity to offer policy-based platforms rather than patronage campaigns. This process should be supported through political education, but potentially also through funding from public sources, depending as much of this wishlist does on non-partisan and thorough anti-corruption efforts.

Nurturing Democracy as Foreign Policy

Mongolia has achieved a stature in the world and in internal relations that is much beyond its size and significance. In part, this has been built on its status as the only post-state socialist Asian democracy. That is something that the country’s foreign policy should continue to build on. Whether it is through existing foreign aid programs for Myanmar and the Kirghiz Republic, or through the hosting of the Freedom Online Coalition in 2015 or the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2016, the current warm embrace and showering of gifts on Mongolia by much-less-than-democratic Russia and China should not tempt policy-makers to drop their focus on democracy and democratization as an element in foreign policy. Mongolia has an important role to play as an Asian non-OECD promoter of democratization.


As stated at the outset, OT should remain the first and central priority of the new government. Then, other economic initiatives such as continuing discussions around governance and economic activities at TT or continuation of privatization efforts (MIAT!) would be next. However, a super coalition should also offer the chance to discuss and set in motion some long-term strategies to put Mongolia on a positive path of social and political development. It is my wishlist in this latter category that I have drawn up here.

Posted in Constitution, Corruption, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Higher Education, Oyu Tolgoi, Party Politics, Politics, Social Issues | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cabinet Speculation

As it has become clearer over the weekend that the likely constellation for the new Mongolian government under Prime Minister Ch Saikhanbileg will be a super-coalition involving all political parties and thus 73 of the 76 members of the Ikh Khural, speculation online has been active regarding cabinet appointments.

The political mood seems to be very much favouring a cabinet that would involve relatively fewer MPs, i.e. ministers that wear the single deel of cabinet membership rather than the double-deel of MP & cabinet member. This same discussion has sometimes referred to a “professional cabinet“, though as MP S Demberel pointed out in a tweet to me, all government/cabinets should be professional:

There seems to be no easy term that would designate a nominee for a minister who brings substantive expertise and experience rather than “just” political clout and connections, but that’s what I understand people to mean by a professional cabinet.

The rationale behind the super coalition (as opposed to a grand coalition of DP + MPP which would have a clear majority in parliament already) seems to lie in the recognition of the current economic crisis and the need for parliament to take responsibility for this crisis and to take collective action. It’s not clear to me in this logic why the DP and its coalition partners don’t bear primary responsibility for the crisis, but at the same time, I certainly welcome a super coalition as a constellation that seems more likely to tackle real issues by avoiding blaming each other. I can’t imagine that blaming the three-member opposition of independent MPs will fly as an electoral strategy in June 2016.

Cabinet Speculation

Obviously, speculation about cabinet appointments is a bit of idle fun, as was the attempt to guess who the next PM would be. But, there’s nothing wrong with idle fun.

Obviously, we’ve not had even an announcement of whether the new cabinet would be structured around 16 ministries or the Altankhuyag-introduced 13 ministries. In some ways, a supercoalition would suggest more posts that could be divided between coalition members, but perhaps not.

Some of the following will surely be included: Deputy PM (multiple), Min of Foreign Affairs, Min of Justice, Min of Finance, Min of Mines & Energy, Cabinet Secretary, Min of Agriculture, Min of Labour, Min of Health, etc.

I wouldn’t claim that I’ve made an exhaustive list of possibilities that are being mentioned, but some names do seem to be cropping up more regularly.

L Purevsuren had already been nominated by Altankhuyag to replace L Bold as foreign minister. That Possibility seems to still exist. Obviously, Purevsuren would be seen as an expert in the appropriate portfolio coming out of the diplomatic service himself. He would also be a bridge to Pres Elbegdorj, serving as his foreign policy and security advisor at the moment, which would be useful given the role of the presidency in foreign relations.

R Jigjid is on a couple of lists as a possible Min of Mining which would be a similarly substantive appointment.

MPs who are being mentioned frequently for various posts include U Khurelsukh (MPP), M Enkhsaikhan (MNDP), Ya Sodbaatar (MPP), S Byambatsogt (MPP). Byambatsogt and Khurelsukh also seem likely candidates for Deputy PM representing the MPP.

Other appointments that would involve individuals who are not prominent (party) politicians are a little harder to guess about and not too many of those seem to be on many lists, so there may well be some surprises. It also seems like most lists include very few women, so the actual announcement of nominations will be interesting to watch in that regard as well, particularly because the Women’s Caucus has been quite active in legislative terms, and some women like M Batchimeg have been playing quite a prominent role in recent weeks (as leader of the DP coalition negotiations in Batchimeg’s case, for example).

Some of the prominent politicians who seem to be absent from speculation about cabinet posts: “Genco” Battulga, R Amarjargal, “Fortuna” Batbayar, L Bold, Kh Temuujin.

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Policy Series: Failure of Not Asking Hard Questions

Government policies should provide solutions to our problems. They reduce uncertainty by building trust among all players.  But, in Mongolia’s case, policies have been fragile, unstable, and unpredictable.  Overall, our policies increase uncertainty and build mistrust among ourselves and our partners.

What do we usually do?  Blame each other – politicians, parties, factions, civil society activists, and even foreigners – just in order to escape from the responsibility and raise our own profiles.  We don’t ask hard questions – because our blame game usually ends up in conspiracy theories.

Hard Questions that Need to be Asked

For each major policy issues – we need to ask hard questions and then, we should revoke, revise, or introduce new policies.

  • Why do we need to change the policy?
  • What part of the policy is working or not working?
  • Why did it work or fail? What are causes of success and failure (external and/or internal causes)?
  • What would be the impact of not changing or changing policy?
    • short-term
    • mid-term
    • long-term
  • How will these changes impact all players?
  • How much changes are acceptable to all players?
    • short-term
    • mid-term
    • long-term
  • What would be the optimal options to pursue (i.e., ‘win-win’)?
  • How can policies be implemented?

We know these questions, but rarely ask them.  For a variety of reasons, we, especially our politicians, prefer to blame the people (even if they were part of the policy-making process) and favour a quick temporary fix – within their electoral cycles.  Some even don’t recall their own positions at the different stages of policy-making – because they didn’t ask these hard questions and didn’t rack their brains.

Policy Areas that Need Questioning

There are many policies in Mongolia – require us asking and answering hard questions.  Let’s take a few of them.

Constitutional Reform

The constitutional revision has been on the table on and off. It has very strong, long-term impact on the policymaking process. But, no one really has laid out their reasons in quite convincing ways.  When we’re frustrated with the nature of the legislative process (esp. micromanagement of the executive branch, ineffective decision-making), we seek solutions like a bicameral legislature and a strong presidency.

However, we haven’t addressed the pros and cons of our current setting and didn’t ask why our legislature gradually became the weakest institution.  Until we find satisfying answers to this question, adding a chamber to the legislature or strengthening the power of the presidency will not solve our current policy challenges.

OT Investment Agreement

The Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement is another puzzle.  We all debate over the Oyu Tolgoi shares and our discussions are seemingly influenced by a temporary economic crisis and populist politics.  Even if the parliament provided rights for its governmental negotiating team, it did not initiate a non-partisan study in regards with the strategic mines, including Oyu Tolgoi.  The policy-making process for Oyu Tolgoi could serve us a good policy-making tool to educate our policy community how to deal with multi-national corporations, foreign state-owned enterprises, and domestic investors.  Instead of revoking the past investment agreement decisions, we need to learn from our mistakes and successes and work forward to improve the policy-making process.  Without substantial, non-partisan studies, we could not improve our policies.

Let’s Begin to Ask Hard Questions

Unless our policies address the primary cause of the problem and provide expectations at various phases of the policy implementation, we will not succeed and all will end up as losers.  So, we need to ask hard questions – why and then to find how solutions.  For example, our parliamentarians along with foreign and domestic investors declared their successful changes in the major mining investment legislations (including the windfall profit tax, protection against the state-owned enterprises).  But, they did not address why they had these laws on the first place.  Yes, no one will challenge them during the bust cycle.  Since they didn’t ask hard questions and find solutions for these ad-hoc policies, no one could guarentee – these are permanent solutions.  If you don’t ask hard questions and agree on acceptable solutions – including the nationalist politicians and civil society actors, problems will recur and trigger the another circle of the blame game.

So, let’s ask and answer hard questions together on major policies.

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Policy Series

Over the past several weeks, discussions in “Little Mongolia” in UBC’s Choi Bldg about Mongolian politics have heated up in parallel with the turmoil the Mongolian government is experiencing.

Mendee (UBC Political Science PhD candidate), Damdinnyam Gongor (UBC Mining Engineering MSc candidate) and I keep debating various aspects of party politics, constitutional reform, the need for decisions to remedy the current economic crisis, etc.

The current situation at the office is thus very similar to that which led to the original inception of this blog, when Mendee, Byambajav Dalaibuyan (now a Post-Doc at the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the Univ of Queensland) and I kept having discussions about contemporary Mongolia that we ultimately wanted to share with others.

To focus some of our current discussions, we’re hoping to run a bit of a series that looks at different aspects of the policy-making process over the coming weeks. We hope that this series might inspire some discussion and reaction and would welcome submissions of guests posts that respond to issues that we will be raising.

Posts so far:

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Mongolia – From Sino-Russian Buffer to Conversion Zone

Last autumn, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin made separate visits to Mongolia, met for a tri-lateral (Russia-China-Mongolia) summit in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe during the leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and dispatched their vice-foreign ministers for a working-level meeting in preparation for next year’s summit in Ufa, Russia. With only a very brief amicable period between these three neighbors during the 1950s, China’s and Russia’s recent constructive behavior is new, even anomalous. What might it mean?

China and Russia have competed over Mongolia for centuries. As a result, greater Mongolia was shattered into two major geopolitical entities—Inner Mongolia, which is now part of the PRC, and Outer Mongolia, an independent nation-state. Both Mongolias served as geo-strategic buffer zones during Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. Even in the post-Cold War period, China and Russia avoided any joint collaboration over Mongolia. As a result, major infrastructure projects like railroad and power plants became hostages of the geopolitical and economic competition of Mongolia’s two larger neighbours. A ten-year debate over the railroad extension in Mongolia—about whether to use Chinese or Russian standard gauges—was just one salient example. Earlier, Mongolia’s neutrality was supported by Russia, but no longer.

The joint move of China and Russia indicates a new dynamic in Inner Asia. Russia’s complicated geopolitical competition in Europe is compelling Russia into a more junior partner position in Sino-Russian interactions. Unable to resist Chinese political and economic expansions in Inner Asia, Russia has acquiesced to cooperation with China on infrastructure development projects in Mongolia, and even presented no objections to using Chinese standard rail gauges for railroad expansion in Mongolia. And Russia now supports strengthening the SCO by the inclusion of Mongolia, whose presence is vital to fill the awkward hole in the SCO’s map for regional legitimacy. These changes are transforming Mongolia from a buffer zone to a zone of Sino-Russian convergence.

Note: re-posted with the permission of the Asia Pacific Memo of the Institute of Asian Research, for the original memo, Memo #318 (2014/11/28).

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Recent Political Turmoil Homemade

I find it noticeable that the recent political turmoil (I hesitate to call it a crisis as a change of government is an endorsement of democratic institutions in some ways, and the state budget was passed relatively easily during this tumultuous period) is entirely homemade.

While Mongolian politics and media are usually rife with speculation about the various foreign connections that this or that politicians is supposed to have, there has been very little discussion of such connections recently.

In comparing R Amarjargal and Ch Saikhanbileg, there seemed to be very little discussion whether one of them is more Russophile than the other, or closer to China or to another neighbours.

Domestic Crisis

Is this lack of hinting at foreign connections an indicator of the recognition that this turmoil was homemade? The conclusion that the turmoil was entirely made-in-Mongolia seems quite obvious, but that has not been a reason for countries not to blame foreign forces for various activities. Note for example the silly insinuation of some kind of CIA or other involvement in the current Hong Kong protests offered by Chinese propaganda outlets.

But even in the free-wheeling and very political Mongolian media, there seems to have been an acknowledgment that the Altankhuyag government collapsed due to DP-internal fighting not through foreign manipulation. As much as Saikhanbileg is sometimes guessed to be “close” to Rio Tinto (whatever that really means), there haven’t been any hints at corporate conspiracies that have led to government changes.

That is all not only an accurate portrayal of the current crisis, but also a healthy sign of recognition of the agency of Mongolia’s government in its own fate, as I also discussed in the context of a brief reflection on Myanmar’s development as a lens on Mongolia’s context in the UB Post.

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A Professional Minister vs. Professional Bureaucrats

The political climate in Ulaanbaatar is now in favour of the pro-professional cabinet.  President, Chairman, members of parliament, and even well-known columnist Baabar advised Mr. New Prime Minister to recruit professionals outside from the parliament and to tame the parochial interests.  This is not new.  The majority of past governments, either the coalition or the ruling party, had tried. But, I would doubt – this ad hoc solution would address the deep problem of governance – because the current structure of the public service continues to create incentives for anyone to follow their parochial interests, but not the fine laws of the Public Service and professional merits. 

First, professionals are frustrated – they don’t want to see another around of the politicization.  Now we can categorize the public servants into three major categories: (1) old cadre and senior specialists, (2) newly recruited professionals through merits, and (3) political party-affilliated specialists.  The first group are people who are familiar with the bureaucratic routines – who were either part of or worked with experienced cadre of the pre-1990 administrations.  Now most accept – they [senior specialists – ‘ахлах мэргэжилтнүүд’] are shouldering the heavy workload.  The second group has been recruited through a standard public service entry process [following the professional merits].  They are hardworkers, but poorly paid.  The last group could be divided into two sub-categories: (1) the true party fanatics – who come and go depending on the election results and (2) assimiliators – who find ways to become public servants through the political party line.  In comparison with previous two groups, the third group has less incentives and expertise to work, but more accessible to benefits (e.g., travel, schools, awards, bidding, contracts).  For sure, the new professional minister and vice minister will bring his/her own team (e.g., advisors, assistants) and will attempt to provide another opportunities for political party-affilliated specialists.

Second, it will deepen the unequal distribution of the workload and benefits.  After each election, at the national and provincial/local governments, we would see strong (most of the time, quite explicit) competitions for posts of ministers, vice-ministers, chiefs, and deputy chiefs of agency, chiefs of departments, senior positions of the state-owned enterprises.  Why, because these posts are highly paid and accessible to all sorts of public funds and assets.  And, even these senior officials create new positions and units for ‘their’ persons, but not for the workload.  This parochial interest-driven process creates unequal distribution of workload and benefits for public servants.  The majority of public servants could not complain because they could be easily marginalized or victimized by temporary political appointees.

Third, the appointment of the professional minister and the ignorance of professional bureaucrats weaken the bureaucracy – which is the core of any government.  Obviously, we would see three types of professional ministers in this new cabinet: (1) A true professional minister – an skillful manager, who can uphold his professional expertise and ethnics over other interests.  (2) A ‘hijacked’ minister – a good manager, but caught up in his/her personal, factional, and tribal (i.e., provincial) interests.  (3) A ‘balanced’ minister – who tries to balance his professional and parochial interests.  But, all these ministers will work under same structural constraints.  For one, they are all uncertain about the fate of the coalition government – since they could not see the lifespan of the new government within and beyond one and half year.  Second, they and their team would spend 3-6 months to figure out, 3-6 months to implement, and 3-6 months to choose their options before the 2016 election.  Third, political parties, political and economic factions, their provincial homeland associations (нутгийн зөвлөл), and others will often pressure them either to support their candidates, polices, and tenders or not to endanger these interests.  Some professional ministers would fight against these structural constraints, but most wouldn’t because of the audience costs.

So, what should be done.

Yes, Mr. New Prime Minister has no options other than to appoint professional ministers, but, it would be a temporary fix – and exacerbate the underlying problems.

This is up to the parliament.  The parliament is the only institution – that could establish a non-partisan commission to examine the public service, to brainstorm with the past and current experts, and to implement a long-term public service reform plan.

The commission could be headed by influential politicians – former presidents and prime ministers – along with non-partisan experts.  They could examine past experiences (even including the communist periods and along with transitional periods of 1990s), asks hard questions on why our fine public service law, regulations, and standards are not solving the problems, and, produces the long-term public service reform strategy.

The public service is the core, the main processor (i.e., computer PC), of the state.  Our processor needs an overhaul, if we delay this reform process, the state will implode; the bureaucracy could not respond to any external and internal crisis.   With a short-term fix, parties will continue to see the public service as a school for their cadre, an asset for their election, and a source of income whereas the political-economic factions will consider the bureaucracy a tool to increase and protect their profits. Only the parliament could dismantle this current public service structure that forces public servants to side with politicians, parties, and factions to survive, but not pursue their professional merits. 


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A Little Correction to Mr. Enkhsaikhan’s Push for Constitutional Reform

Coinciding with the birth of New Prime Minister, Mr. Enkhsaikhan, former Prime Minister and one of the political heavyweights, made an interesting presentation at the research workshop on the “Constitutional Reform” – link. He was sharing his view on creating a bicameral legislature and a strong president.  For making his points clear, he referred to two academic sources.  But, he didn’t use his sources properly – either intentionally or unintentionally.  And, I like to make a little correction.

He referred to Dr. Steven Fish’s article – “The Inner Asian Anomaly: Mongolia’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective” – published in the peer-reviewed journal of  Communist and Post-Communist Studies in 2001.  First, Enkhsaikhan was correct that Fish called Mongolia as an anomaly, but Dr. Fish wouldn’t interpret as Mr. Enkhsaikhan did.  Second, Fish didn’t mean that the political institutionalization of Mongolia had intention to destroy (in the Enkhsaikhan’s line “to burn”) the state institution.

There are two scholars (political scientists) examined our political institutionalization processes and published several in the peer-reviewed, academic journals.  One is Dr. Steven Fish.

His first article appeared in the Journal of Democracy in 1998 – argued that Mongolia’s democratic transition succeeded due five factors: (1) to the compromise between the communist party leaders and the opposition in 1990, (2) institutional choice of semi-presidentialism in the 1992 Constitution, (3) a strong multi-party system, and (5) vibrant civil society.  Therefore, Mongolia made a successful transition to democracy without any prerequisites.

Then, in 2001, he compared Mongolia with five Central Asian states and asked why only Mongolia succeeded in transition and was moving forward to the democratic consolidation.  So for him, Mongolia’s successful trajectory of democracy was an anomalyin comparison with Central Asian states, but not other democracies.  In other words, theories that  explain the political trajectories (e.g., failure of democratization and autocracy) of post-Soviet states, esp., those in Central Asia, could not explain the Mongolia’s success; therefore, Mongolia is a theoretically deviant, outlier case.

He listed five reasons – why the Mongolian democracy was successful.  First, Mongolia did not have abundant natural resources, especially oil and gas.  Second, Mongolia was not geo-strategically important for great powers, especially for Russia during 1990s.  Third, Mongolia, given its location and the small size of population, did have any pretensions to becoming a regional power like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Fourth, there was no national father figure in Mongolia at a time of transition.  Fifth, Mongolia successfully dispersed the political power between the president and the parliament while all five Central Asian states and Russia concentrated power in one institution – the president.  This is the article, Mr. Enkhsaikhan referred.

Interestingly, I would like to share a few of Dr. Fish’s warnings for Mongolia – because he was (in 2001) still considering Mongolia was in transition and needed to pass some tests.  It might be easier, to cite them:

“….if Mongolia’s hopes for great oil wealth [natural resources] are realized, the state may quickly become little more than a battleground for actors seeking control over the proceeds from oil rents. Such a circumstance would critically endanger democratization” (p. 336).

“Were Putin to pick a particular politician or political force in Mongolia and back such an individual or force unconditionally, democracy’s prospects in Mongolia could suffer severely” (p. 336).

“Whether Mongolia can maintain a reasonably high level of democratic attainment depends in large part on the skill and imagination of its political leaders” (p. 337).

Later in the same year, he also included Mongolia in his comparative study of post-communist states in Central and Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics. The book is called Postcommunism and Theory of Democracy.  One of his major findings was that only states, including Mongolia, that avoided the superpresidentialism through dispersement of power between the president and parliament, remained as democracy in the post-communist bloc.  And, he even presented his formula for democratic reversals that would lead into superpresidentialism by using the presidential powers.

Although we’re always sceptical about foreign scholars who are writing on Mongolia, we could not misinterpret their research findings, especially when they devoted reasonable efforts by talking to our politicians from both spectrum, bureaucrats, scholars, and foreign observers. Dr. Fish had provided the list of his interviewees.

In sum, I don’t think that Dr. Enkhsaikhan’s usage of the scholarly source was helpful for our academic and policy debates over political institutionalization if we misinterpret it.  However, I am very glad that politicians are devoting their valuable time and effort to connect the theory and practice before going into a difficult battle.

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Saikhanbileg Elected Prime Minister

On the morning of November 21, the Mongolian parliament elected Ch Saikhanbileg as the new prime minister.

He was elected by a 42:2 vote which means that 32 members of the State Great Khural were absent for the voting. While I’m waiting for an exact listing of votes cast the absence of the MPP from the vote suggests that he was elected with (near-)unanimous support from the previous DP+Justice Coalition + Civil Will Green Party coalition.

Assessing a Future Saikhanbileg Government

I had previously posted some thoughts on what a Prime Minister Saikhanbileg might signal (compared to R Amarjargal by comparison).

Some days later now, my basic assessment holds. It is hard – though possible – to imagine Prime Minister Saikhanbileg elected by the same coalition as a significant departure from the previous government and it is thus equally hard to place great faith in his government in addressing some of the pressing social and economic issues that Mongolia is facing.

The two aspects of his election that might lead to a slightly more optimistic assessment are: his age (born in 1969 he is clearly of a different generation from leaders like Altankhuyag, Amarjargal or Pres. Elbegdorj) and the possibility of a more pragmatic cabinet of experts and professionals (following the political mood that I found earlier in the week in Ulaanbaatar in this regard).

By contrast, Saikhanbileg’s role in the previous government as cabinet secretary and his biography as a career politician (he was an MP and minister during the 1996-2000 period of DP government which turned somewhat disastrous in the last two years) do not give much cause for optimism.

The final cause for some concern is the chaotic manner in which this election came about. Given how seemingly self-destructive some of the political games that were played by leaders were and the extent to which a comparison with the implosion of the Democratic Union coalition in 1998-2000 seems obvious, there may be some doubts about how durable the Saikhanbileg government will be. It would be surprising to see Saikhanbileg serve out the remainder of the term until June 2016 from my perspective. The next moment of ferment might come after the lunar year, a period going into the Spring that traditionally brings some restlessness to Mongolian politics.

I had previously posted a bio for Saikhanbileg and re-post that here:

Some Background on Saikhanbileg

Chimed Saikhanbileg (Чимэдийн Сайханбилэг) was born in 1969 in Dornod. He was educated at Moscow State University for the Humanities (History), at the National University of Mongolia (Law) and at George Washington University (Law). He speaks English and Russian.

Saikhanbileg was an MP from 1996-2000 and served as Minister of Education 1998-2000. More recently he has served as Minister of the Cabinet Office under Prime Minister N Altankhuyag since 2012. He was elected as an MP in 2008 from Ulaanbaatar’s Bayanzurkh-Nalaikh riding and re-elected in 2012 from the DP party list.

He came into the Democratic Party from the Mongolian Youth Federation where he was president from 1997-2002. From 2008-12 he served as the leader of the Democratic caucus in parliament.

In both his most recent roles, i.e. as caucus chair 2008-12 and as cabinet secretary he has been associated primarily with party work and has had less of a public profile on policy issues. He belongs to the Polarstar faction of the DP. He is said to have had a very good relationship with frm. President Enkhbayar but is also perceived to be close to Pres Elbegdorj.

While Saikhanbileg has Twitter and Facebook accounts he has largely stayed off social media for the past year. Along with former wrestler Bat-Erdene, he may well be the tallest member of parliament.


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Political Mood Amid Chaos

As always, I was thrilled to have a chance to visit Ulaanbaatar, even if it was for a mere 40 hours.

Political Mood: DP Partying Like It’s 1998

Most friends and acquaintances I spoke to are puzzled by the current chaos. Especially puzzling is the apparent repetition of the 1998 mistakes by the DP. This is even more puzzling when considering that many of the principal players then, are still involved today (Elbegdorj, Bat-Uul, Altankhuyag, Amarjargal, Saikhanbileg…).

Then, the DP had won big in the 1996 election and had turned the state bureaucracy upside down in the first years of its government. Then – as now – the DP (then still a looser coalition) went on a self-destructive bender that saw an endless series of unstable governments and a rotation of prime ministers, including current president, Elbegdorj, and PM contender, Amarjargal.

All of this ended in DP slaughter in the 2000 election and many of the main players in the party subsequently went abroad for some time.

From Altankhuyag’s announcement of a long-term electoral alliance with the MPRP that was bound to and did raise the ire of many DP members, including leaders, to the tussle between the Great State Khural DP caucus vs. the National Consultative Council with one endorsing Amarjargal, the other option for Saikhanbileg, I and many people I spoke to would be hard-pressed to imagine a more effective way for the DP to implode. The only step that hasn’t been taken has been some kind of splintering with new parties founded by dissidents, though if whatever government is forming in the coming weeks will fall before the 2016 election such a split also seems like a very likely possibility.

All of this is happening in the absence of any clearly emerging new leaders with both DP and MPP stuck with the leaders of the past 10+ years. Where either party does have some promising leaders, they seem to have been side-lined by internecine warfare or are deliberately keeping a relatively low profile in the current chaos.

Elbegdorj seems to have also removed himself from some of these discussions. I would still expect that he’s hoping to move to some international office at the end of his term in 2017, but surely he is also maneuvering to keep some measure of control over the DP. Bat-Uul is likely to mount a very strong candidacy for the presidency in 2017 despite the DP’s woes based on his popularity as UB mayor.

What’s Needed? Pragmatic Problem-Solving

All the political shenanigans seem to be fuelling a desire for pragmatic and competent leadership, something that Saikhanbileg and Amarjargal also seem to be endorsing, though Amarjargal perhaps slightly more credibly.

There is a certain exhaustion with political games when many people do see the economic crisis and mounting debt load as pressing issues to be addressed. Political parties are not seen as the solution to this situation, but individuals and non-MP ministers to some extent are. That has reinforced my expectation that whatever cabinet might emerge will have a significant share of non-MP ministers, wearing a single deel, that of a technocract.

Almost all other questions seem to be answered by “Can’t even begin to guess.” by my interlocutors. Coalitions (including wilder possibilities like a DP+MPP+some others), PM, ministers, all these seem to be open for speculation.

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Side Notes on Very Brief Visit

On recent visits I have almost always try to note the small differences I see in Ulaanbaatar (see, for example, “New to Ulaanbaatar in 2014“). Here are some very few ones I noticed on this visit:

Construction continues with many residential blocks being built on the way in from the airport and to the South of the downtown core. Some of these are getting rather fanciful names, “Bella Vista”, “Marshall Deluxe Village”, “Encanto Town”.

Construction in Ulaanbaatar, Nov 2014

The “mountain road” hugging the south side of the Tuul along the city has been opened and now gives drivers from the airport two options into town, but it also provides drivers from Zaisan going out of town the option to avoid downtown.

New Ulaanbaatar “Mountain Road”

There are many new highway signs going up and traffic circles, animated pedestrian lights, and more carefully-designed intersections suggest that Ulaanbaatar is awash in traffic engineers.

In the downtown core, construction continues on the Shangri-la despite the small construction fire earlier in the fall. This will be a huge hotel and convention complex and the road that runs East-West in front of it past the UB Mart is now two-lane and straight.

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An Outlook on an Amarjargal or Saikhanbileg-led Government

The signs at the moment suggest that Saikhanbileg will end up as the next prime minister of Mongolia. Given his past association with Pres. Elbegdorj, it would seem like his nomination to parliament should go through. That leaves the question of the coalition that would support him as PM, especially after the DP seems to have opened the door to discussions with all parties.

Yet, the DP seems to also have exhibited a bit of a self-destructive streak recently, so who knows what might still happen. If Z Enkhbold is able to consolidate some authority if not power over the party, perhaps that will settle some of the internecine warfare.


Whether the new PM is able to make progress on some very important issues will depend to a large extent on the coalition that will be assembled. Put very briefly, I don’t have much confidence in the previous constellation (DP + Justice Coalition + CWGP). The DP has been bogged down in factional warfare and seems to be a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights regarding some of the economic challenges and the 2016 election. It’s hard to think of the Justice Coalition as a constructive force in politics and MPs Oyun and Demberel’s influence is naturally limited. So, independent of who ends up being PM, a renewal of the current coalition would lower my confidence that significant movement on OT, the fiscal situation, other pressing issues is likely to happen in the next six months. Beyond that, the 2016 election will begin to loom.

A grand coalition with the MPP, by contrast, would at least hold the promise of more decisive action that would have a broad enough majority to not be threatened by caucus-internal debates.

Leadership: Amarjargal vs. Saikhanbileg


I don’t quite buy the “technocrat” narrative on Amarjargal. Yes, he’s been an academic in the past, but he hasn’t really been running any larger scale public administration effort that would give him the managerial experience and drive to steer the government ship in a different direction. And his academic merits are also fairly domestic in nature and somewhat limited. However, his technocrat image might speak to a desire to devise policies for their substantive impact, not necessarily for political/electoral expediency. That would obviously be a welcome shift.

His somewhat maverick instincts and apparent stubbornness could be a great thing, of course, but only if he picks some constructive policies to be stubborn about and it’s not clear to me that we really know what direction he might go. I find it hard to imagine him working with the previous coalition effectively given DP shakiness and Justice Coalition intransigence.


And Saikhanbileg? I have had a chance in the past to spend some time with him and had a good conversation, he certainly made a positive impression in terms of his substantive knowledge and interests. But is he not fairly similar to someone like Altankhuyag, i.e. focused on managing party concerns with a bit of the implication of being in government for government’s sake, not for the nation’s or the people’s sake? He is of a younger generation and would represent a step away from the original democracy activists in the DP. But so far, the younger generation of DP politicians has not really stood out for any specific substantive policies that they have embraced that would distinguish them from Elebgdorj, Bat-Uul and that generation of leaders.

Would either of them initiate a wholesale personnel rotation again? This has done such harm in the past, including the past two years by destabilizing the government apparatus and forcing people into unfamiliar positions. The fact that Saikhanbileg has been part of the government for the past two years suggests that he may well leave many ministerial posts (beyond the ministers themselves) alone, while Amarjargal’s maverick instincts might lead him to replace more people.

My big question, of course, is: how likely is either to make progress on OT and get some other matters (fiscal, etc.) sorted? In the end I think the coalition may be more important than the PM on that matter.


I wouldn’t dare to guess whom the next PM might appoint to cabinet. One of the initial questions might be whether the new PM goes with the 13 ministries reform initiated by Altankhuyag. That has only been in place for such a short time that I don’t imagine it’s really cast in stone. On the other hand, why expand cabinet again after the double-deel debates of the Spring, etc.

It’s hard to imagine either coalition scenario producing a cabinet that would be dominated in any way by non-MPs with significant substantive qualifications. Amarjargal’s technocratic image and lack of strong faction ties/obligations might lead one to expect that he would exert his influence more in the direction of somewhat more independent ministers.

In a grand coalition, the main question would be what ministries the MPP would bargain for. M Enkhbold is not a politician that many people would expect decisive action on substantive files on, so the MPP ministers and their portfolios might play a significant role in decisions the government might make.

Some of the ministers that have been performing well in the previous government (Bold as FM, Oyun for Green Development, Oyungerel for Culture) are probably relatively unlikely to be in cabinet again.


As always, I assume that some of my understanding of the current political context in Mongolia will be off and welcome corrections and comments using the blog’s comment function.

Posted in Civil Will Green Party, Democratic Party, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment