In a late Aug 2011 column for the International Herald Tribune which was also published by the Globe & Mail, Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, wrote about arguments that some of the regimes that are currently crumbling in the Arab world should be categorized as “sultanistic”. She’s referring to a term as used by Jack Goldstone of George Mason Univ. “Sultanistic dictatorships” are focused entirely on the preservation of the power of the “Sultan”, devoid of any motivating ideology or drive. The argument thus goes that dictators like Moammar Qaddafi focus on the maintenance of their power through divide-and-conquer tactics using military might and trusted lieutenants. Their demise is sped up by the lack of a unifying or motivating ideology and various (elite) groups supporting the sultan this quickly abandon him (usually) as power dynamics seem to shift.
In Mongolia, the term “oligarchy” has been used more and more frequently in the past two to three years. The first person I heard use this term in the Mongolian context is Bat-Uul, prominent democracy activist since the early democratic movement and still an important power broker in the Democratic Party. The term is clearly borrowed from the Russian context where it refers to the few individuals who became massively wealthy in the turmoil of the privatization of state assets and through their proximity to political decision-makers. Not all of the “oligarchs” have been able to maintain their closeness to politicians, but they certainly seem to be a force in Russia.
While there are by now many rich people in Ulaanbaatar and many of them obviously maintain close relations with people in political power or wield political power themselves, this term of “oligarch” has not struck me as particularly useful in the Mongolian context. For one, while corruption may certainly have played an important role, it is not the chaos of relatively unstructured and unsupervised privatization that has built the wealth of some of Mongolia’s wealthiest. On the other hand, their wealth often is derived from areas that are quite central to the Mongolian economy, including significant shareholdings in the mining sector.
Yet, I see corruption as one of the root evils that threatens the existence of Mongolian democracy in the long term, not the presence of oligarchs.
As I contemplate long-term scenarios for Mongolian political development, it is clear to me that there is some significant risk of a descent into some kind of popularist authoritarianism (as seen in several of the -stans). The current incarnation of party politics also seems prone to sultanistic tendencies, i.e. an exclusive focus on the preservation of power, rather than a vehicle for democratic decision-making. The lack of a political, ideological and policy profile of any of the Mongolian parties (past and present since the early 1990s) is one of the great laments about political development there, and this lack has made some unfortunate aspects of Mongolian politics relatively prominent.
Of course, the focus on electoral politics is one of the aspects of diverse parties in developed and generally-assumed-to-be mature democracies, like Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s Third Way, or Stephen Harper’s electoral strategies and courting of ethnic minorities in contemporary Canada. Nothing unique to Mongolia in this scenario. However, one significant difference: true and tested constitutional and electoral structures with significant distribution of power to different institutions. By contrast, Mongolia’s politicians keep tinkering with some of the foundations of their democracy (witness the recent debates about proportional representation in the Ikh Khural), and with the exact balance of power between the president and parliament/the prime minister (although the current Elbegdorj-Batbold cohabitation seems fairly quiet in this regard). It seems like a charismatic populist would be able to exploit parties’ and individual politicians’ sultanistic tendencies to establish him/herself as an authoritarian figure of some kind.