The Citizens’ Hall and Homeland Councils

Just adding a part of my thesis that focuses on the Citizens’ Hall and Homeland Councils.  And, still wondering how political parties’ emerging interests in local politics will impact the most powerful local network, Homeland Councils.

The citizens’ halls and the homeland councils provide interesting insights. The citizens’ halls demonstrate how a new democracy localizes ideas found in other democracies, while the homeland councils are examples of how informal networks of previous regimes have been transformed into the most influential formal network between urban and rural societies. The former plays a constructive role in civil society development, but the latter plays both positive and negative roles.

The first citizens’ hall (irgenii tanhim) was established in 2009 at the Government House.[i] Its main purpose is to provide citizens and civil society organizations an opportunity to participate in the law-making process.  It was initiated by current President Elbegdorj and his advisors based on examples from developed democracies.  The German Embassy, TAF and OSI provided technical assistance.[ii]  In the past three years, the citizens’ hall at the Government House was used to discuss draft legislation, amendments and the state budget, to debate over policies (e.g., city development, taxation, food security), to conduct hearings, and to hold an annual ‘town hall’ meeting with the president. The citizens’ hall at the Government House is administrated by the Presidential Office. The Presidential Office sets agendas, recieves public recommendations, administers the debates and hearings[1], and reports outcomes to the public.  The citizens’ hall uses all types of social media (website, Facebook, twitter) and broadcasts major debates.  Events are usually attended by parliament members, government officials and experts.  By January 2012, 15 out of 21 provinces, 5 out of 9 districts of the capital city, and the capital city itself established the citizens’ halls.[iii]  The citizens’ halls are mostly run by the secretariat of the local legislative chambers.  The majority of  these halls follow the handbook, Local Self-Governance based on Citizens’ Participation (2010).[iv]

The idea of the citizens’ halls is localized in the Mongolian context.  It shows the existence and impacts of civil society space because politicians are reacting, and trying to establish channels with civil society actors and organizations. But, the citizens’ hall reaches a limited number of citizens (ARD, 2010, p. 7), and could be used to strengthen the legitimacy of the presidential office, or to advance specific interests by claiming wider public support. It is even a bit early to distinguish the impacts of the citizens’ halls from similar efforts occurring among Mongolia’s neighbors: Chinese deliberative mechanisms (He & Warren, 2011) or Russian Public Chambers (Evans A. B., 2008; Richter, 2009). However, it has begun to serve as a channel for civil society actors to advance public interests.

The homeland councils (nutagyn zuvlul) differ significantly as an institution from the citizens’ halls. The councils are self-initiated, self-funded, and self-governed, while the citizens’ halls are dependent on government initiatives, resources, and governance.  To gain parliamentary seats, and provincial governance positions (i.e., governors and local legislative chambers of province and counties), politicians are increasingly dependent on the support of the homeland councils. The homeland councils play an important role in politicians getting elected, artists getting state awards, and even wrestlers getting the national wrestling ranks. For example, in last parliamentary elections, 56 out of 76 members of the Mongolian parliament represented ridings outside of the capital city, although over half the population resides in the capital. The revised Election Law (15 December, 2011) reduced the number of majoritarian seats from 76 to 48 by introducing 28 proportional seats.  However, 34 out of 48 seats will still belong to provinces. Moreover, the homeland councils are a locally developed innovation.  Their main goal is to facilitate communication between people in the rural provinces and counties with their natives who are presently residing in urban centres. The most common shared ties with rural provinces and counties include place of birth, parents’ native lands, home schools (e.g., secondary, vocational schools, and university), and work-related experiences.

The number of the homeland councils started to surge starting in the early 1990s because of the increased migration to the urban centres and the deterioration of public services in rural areas. Today each of the 21 provinces has its own homeland council.[v] Although the goals of the homeland councils have changed over time, there are several generalizable features.  First, the homeland councils are registered as non-governmental organizations (Sneath, 2010, p. 258). The homeland councils of counties usually operate as part of the homeland council of the respective provinces.[vi]  Second, the management committee (udirdakh zuvlul) of the homeland council includes notable individuals (e.g., statesmen, politicians, athletes, artists, scholars, high-ranking military and security service personnel, and monks) who have ties with the province. According to Sneath, the management committee has 10 to 25 members and the councils have a membership of 30-60 members help to organize events and campaigns (Sneath, 2010, p. 258). Third, homeland councils organize similar events.  Two annual events are worth mentioning.  The Lunar New Year’s celebration is organized in major urban centres. Interestingly, governors and members of the legislative chambers of the province and its counties attend this celebration. The other event is the anniversary of the province.  All members who reside outside of the province participate in this celebration which takes place in the home province.  Fourth, some councils have veterans and student associations.  The student associations are in charge of mobilizing students, alumni and organizing youth events (e.g., New Year’s celebration, parties, and sporting events).  Although all councils operate in the capital city (Byambajav, 2012; Sneath, 2010), some have branches in other major urban centres, such as Erdenet, Darkhan, and Choibalsan cities. Fifth, councils organize fundraising or disaster relief assistance.  Finally, all councils have their own regulations, and have begun to use social media (e.g., web sites, facebook), publish local histories, and reach out natives abroad.

Undoubtedly, homeland councils are important civil society organizations, but some of their activities and their lack of transparency tend to work against the development of democratic institutions.  For example, councils actively lobby for their natives to be posted in higher government positions and university graduates for employment in various organizations, including government services.  As a result, this contributes to the growth of unofficial local networks within the public services and undermines the principles of meritocracy and professionalism.  To secure ones’ political and business interests, politicians (esp., parliamentarians) engage in ‘logrolling’ and compete to distribute government funds and to obtain foreign assistance for their provinces.  In addition, business entrepreneurs and entities provide financial assistance to gain the support of homeland councils.  However, the financial aspects of the homeland councils remain nontransparent. Apparently, larger funds are devoted to organizing expensive anniversary celebrations.[vii]

Examples of the citizens’ halls and the homeland councils demonstrate the existence of civil society space in Mongolia. Two different types of institutionalization are occurring. The citizen’s halls are initiated and promoted by the Presidential Office. It is totally dependent on the will and resources of the government and politicians. In contrast, the homeland councils are self-initiated, funded, and governed by citizens to promote local interests in national politics. Both venues are open to any politicians, citizens, and state and business actors to advance their public, collective, or even personal interests. These venues are promoting democratic values and a sense of democratic citizenship through encouragement of civic activities. However, the homeland councils, apparently, lack transparency and often promote clientelistic types of engagements with actors of the state and political and economic societies. This is harmful to healthy civil society development.

[i]“Erokhiilogchiin dergedeh irgenii tanhim uudee neelee” [The Citizens’ Hall at the President’s Office Opens], available:  http://www.vip76.mn/medee/uil-yavdlyn-medee/8299-eronxiilogchiin-dergedex-irgenii-tanxim-uudee-neelee.html (accessed 20 May 2012).

[ii] Opening Ceremony Addresses of the German Ambassador, TAF Country Representative, and CEO of the Open Society Forum, 15 December 2009, available at: http://www.irgen.org/index.php/irgenii-tanhim?start=28 (accessed 27 May 2012).

[iii] “Update of the Establishment of the Local Citizens’ Halls,” the Citizen Hall Press Release, 10 January 2012, available at: irgen.org/index.php/irgenii-tanhim/135-3534546547 (accessed 27 May 2012).

[iv] The handbook was written by the Presidential Office experts who were in charge of the initial study, establishment, and management of the citizens’ halls.  The handbook is available at: www.president.mn/mongolian/sites/default/files/it_nom.pdf.

[v] Administratively, Mongolia is divided into 21 provinces and the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The 21 provinces are subdivided into 331 counties (sum).

[vi] On some occasions, some provinces also operate on a regional basis, such as the homeland council for provinces of the Western Regions, in which several provides come together for certain events.

[vii] The homeland councils often present costly awards (the most popular one – jeep – e.g., Toyota) for winners of the wrestling and horseracing competitions.

 

About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee, a PhD candidate of the Political Science Department of the University of British Columbia
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