Some days ago, I considered whether we might take the share of the party vote achieved by the MPRP in tomorrow’s election as an indication of (a rise of) populism in Mongolian politics. Having had the opportunity to speak to a few supporters of the MPRP in the past several days of visiting campaign offices and candidates, I do think that support for the party indicates the appeal of populist and simplistic interpretations of developments and proposals for policies.
The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party was Mongolia’s governing party for the entire state socialist period, of course, and managed to transform itself into a political force that continued to dominate democratic politics as well, as Morris Rossabi has described in his 2009 Pacific Affairs article, “The Transmogrification of a Communist Party“. Since the publication of this article, the MPRP has been transmogrifying further.
In 2009 Enkhbayar lost his bid for re-election as Mongolia’s president following a campaign that suggested that the MPRP was not fully behind their candidate. Partly to avoid any wrangling and unrest about the election results, then-PM Bayar conceded defeat in this election very quickly and Enkhbayar was further abandoned by the party. This clearly left him feeling very aggrieved. In 2010, party leader and prime minister Batbold received support from the party for his decision to rename the party Mongolian People’s Party (MPP or МАН).
Enkhbayar at this point decided to spin off his own party and successfully fought a legal battle to be allowed to use MPRP as the name for this new party. The party has thus assumed the mantel of a 90-year history at least in part from the MPP which continues to control the party’s resources, logo, etc.
In the current election the MPRP has formed a coalition with a minor party, but is really emerging as Enkhbayar’s party, particularly given the saga of his arrest on corruption charges, and subsequent denial of his candidacy on the MPRP’s party list.
In speaking to local campaign workers it is clear that their attachment to the MPRP is an attachment to Enkhbayar’s leadership. Some of them even referred to the party as “Enkhbayar’s Party” rather than MPRP.
It is also clear that the message that the party faithful have been given/are spinning out of Enkhbayar’s arrest and subsequent trial is one of resistance to international and capitalist forces and a role for Enkhbayar as a champion for the common people and for the homeland. These are all the hallmarks of populism and elements of resource nationalism as well.
Most campaign offices that we visited were staffed by elderly Mongolians. While they were quick to assure us that the MPRP is a very young party, this was not at all evident in the campaign offices. A campaign rally we attended on June 25 on the western outskirts of Ulaanbaatar was also dominated by the elderly, though it included many younger campaign workers who were surely paid, as they are by other parties.
One campaign worker we met in the countryside was perhaps most eloquent in elaborating Enkhbayar’s appeal when she spoke of the fascist regime and oligarchs that were after Enkhbayar and the need to restore ownership over mineral resources to the Mongolian people. While the party can hardly be held responsible for the statements of an individual campaign worker in a somewhat far-flung location, the sense we got from less explicit discussions with other campaign workers was also one of a simplistic understanding of ownership of mineral resources, due process of law, corruption and political leadership.
When the results of the election will be announced, I will thus be interpreting the share won by the MPRP as an indication of the appeal of populism. Other elements in the MPRP vote will of course also be some conservatism in the countryside where the MPRP brand will carry a lot of weight and some protest given Enkhbayar’s role as a thorn in the established parties side.
If the MPRP emerges as the third largest party in the election and if this translates into a significant number of seats (most likely largely through proportional representation, rather than from first-past-the-post districts), the party will become a loud voice for populism and resource nationalism in the next parliament.
[I realize that this post will quickly generate a response from Enkhbayar’s very efficient and professional PR squad, masquerading as an “ordinary Mongolia who has been a long-time supporter of the DP”. Many colleagues and also numerous journalists have been receiving PR packages and reactions to things we write for some weeks now. I want to emphasize that I do not consider myself to be “anti-Enkhbayar” but that I am trying to describe my (limited) observations. The one time I met Enkhbayar when he was president he was certainly friendly and also gave a nice, though largely ceremonial (appropriate to the occasion) speech. I will approve comments on this post that make a substantive point, but not those that merely rant and accuse me of various sources of bias.]