Disappointed by the Khurelsukh Cabinet

By Julian Dierkes

My dominant view of developments in Mongolia is, “If only…”. The economic, political and social development promise is there, yet its fulfillment is always one or two good decisions away. In my view, Khurelsukh’s cabinet unfortunately signals that this fulfillment has once again been pushed further away. As an eternal optimist when it comes to Mongolia, I am happy to give PM Khurelsukh and some of his ministers the benefit of the doubt, but there are a number of aspects of this cabinet that make me less likely to expect good things.

With Mendee, I’ve already offered an initial assessment of the new cabinet at The Diplomat. Hopefully, he’ll offer a counter-point to my specific points below.

Why Did I Think Anything Good Was Happening?

Cynical observers might question the notion that anything good was going to come of a change in government. But, as I said, I remain optimistic. Here are the reasons in this particularly situation, some of which Mendee laid out in a post as well.

  1. Khurelsukh. I have not met him, but I did seem him speak to party activists at a final presidential campaign event in June. He was the most relaxed MPP speaker that I’ve seen. He joked, he spoke freely. More so than any other MPP grandee at the event, certainly including M Enkhbold. Accordingly, he was greeted enthusiastically.
  2. Reformist ferment in the MPP. In meetings with younger party activists, I have seen some ferment brewing. It is brewing around a push for generational change, something that the MPP had been successful at in the past (entirely unlike the DP), but seemed to be stalling. Some of this ferment has been building around Khurelsukh in part because of his ties to the MPP’s youth organization.
  3. Perception of “City” faction as corrupt. Some have been upset by M Enkhbold’s seeming monopolization of all positions for his associates because they wanted some of the spoils of electoral victory, others because the lack of a political agenda in the City faction calls into question any purpose for political office other than political gain.
  4. Rivalry with Princelings. The sons of rich, powerful politicians are rarely a positive force in politics around the world. Some princelings are itching for power in the MPP, but Khurelsukh is opposing them.
  5. Timing. The next election is nearly 3 years away. That is long enough to make some decisions that are not based on electoral calculations.
  6. Battulga. The president has not given any indications that he is pursuing a political agenda in his presidency. That would seem to allow the prime minister to grab a more explicit substantive leadership role.

How Does Cabinet Composition NOT Signal Reform?

Here are some of the points that make me worried about the likelihood of reforms being initiated and carried out by PM Khurelsukh and his cabinet.

Note that I raised Point 3 below first in a quick tweet which has become my most re-tweeted ever.

  1. Process: Party. Khurelsukh seems to have made a strategic decision to take over the government ahead of taking over the party, the reverse order from what has happened in the MPP in the past. That means the Party Congress remains a looming threat because the City faction or the princelings may fight back in that forum. The abstention of many MPP MPs from Khurelsukh’s election signals that this remains a real challenge.
  2. Process: Forming Government. Clearly, Khureksukh was not able to assemble a cabinet free from party factions because he has not consolidated power in the party. In the end, it was the MPP parliamentary group that sent Khurelsukh the list of ministers, not he who selected his cabinet.
  3. Double deel. Other than Khurelsukh himself, every member of cabinet is an MP. I have never been that concerned about the simultaneous role of parliamentarian and government executive, but this is a slap in the face to the public, especially since Khurelsukh had indicated a desire to appoint experts in cabinet. Of course, there are competent MPs. That’s part of the reason why I do not think of the double deel as a challenge in principle, but there are only a few members of this cabinet who seem obviously prepared and competent for their portfolios. That would include D Tsogtbaatar (Foreign Minister), Ts Nyamdorj (Justice), Ch Khurelbaatar (Finance). At the opposite end of this spectrum sits D Sumyabazar whose competence in mining matters has remained well-concealed during his service in parliament so far. Likewise, D Sarangerel is a journalist by profession and so far has not displayed any inclination toward her health portfolio.
  4. Lack of inspiration: women and new faces. Once Khurelsukh had been forced into an all-MP cabinet, he had very few choices that would have been inspirational. But how I wish he had signalled a desire for reform by bringing in competent new faces, including younger politicians and especially more than two women. Women play so many important roles in Mongolian organizations, they need to be included in the most visible and most important decision-making bodies! D Sarangerel is a woman, but her assignment to the Min of Health is not where she is knowledgable and along with Ts Tsogzolmaa at the Min of Education, it is classic assignments for women in cabinets.
  5. Political agenda. Obviously, much remains to be defined. While his delivery was uncharacteristically flat, Khurelsukh’s address to parliament after the election included some topics that could define his government and could move toward much needed fundamental reforms. Some of his speech was perhaps somewhat generic including elements pointing at social development. But judicial reform did seem to get some mention. My personal preference would be for public service reform as the first big task, but judicial reform is obviously linked to an independent judiciary. And perhaps Nyamdorj is the right minister to lead such efforts. We shall see.
  6. No ideology or Politics. Some of the ferment in the MPP has been around a desire to define the party more substantively. Often this is tied to the social-democratic moniker that many party members subscribe to. There has been nothing social-democratic in Khurelsukh’s speeches so far, his cabinet members do not stand for any particular ideological position. Of course, the party congress might be the more obvious place to push for a more substantive understanding of the party, but this does not seem likely at the moment. A change of the Mongolian political culture away from a perception of public office as an earnings opportunity toward the pursuit of substantive policies that allow Mongolians to participate in determining the country’s future is an urgently needed reform, but Khurelsukh may not be the person to bring this about.

What to Watch for in Coming Months

Of course, being an optimist, I have not given up on Khurelsukh and on political reform.

Here are some developments I will be watching in coming months.

  1. Khurelsukh. Let’s hear some more speeches to find out whether he has a political agenda and what that is.
  2. Further appointments. Will there be vice ministers? Will they be political appointments or competent or both? Will there be a wholesale rotation of personnel, again?
  3. Party congress. Obviously, this may turn into a battle. Or not.
  4. Constitutional reform. Currently, the desire for constitutional reform seems to have subsided. Will Khurelsukh re-invigorate discussions or simply drop them?
  5. Cohabitation. Khurelsukh will have to find some way to cooperate with Pres. Battulga. Will this relationship be confrontational, or an active collaboration, or a stand-off?
  6. More bikes. Will state limousines be replaced by Harley-Davidsons?
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