By Julian Dierkes
One of the interesting potential dynamics of the presidential campaign and election will be the regional distribution of votes among the three candidates.
The Regional Strengths of Political Affiliation
Conventional wisdom holds that the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) is strong in the countryside while the Democratic Party (DP) dominates in Ulaanbaatar.
The reasons offered for this distribution is that the MPP inherited an intact party organization from the longtime state party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, giving it the ability not only to organize party members for campaigning in the countryside, but also distributing the spoils of political office (especially public jobs) among its members and supporters.
By contrast, traditional DP strength in Ulaanbaatar is often traced back to the democratic revolution of 1989/90 and a portrayal of this revolution as primarily an urban one, even though Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet and Dakhan as the three urban centres of the country included a much smaller proportion of the population at that time.
Country-Urban and Regional Divides in Mongolian Politics
The countryside and herding loom, er, large in symbolic politics. Most politicians continue to refer to their rural/herding roots in speeches, even when those roots may lie two or even three generations in their family’s past. Members of parliament from outside of Ulaanbaatar are often accused of neglecting their regional roots for politics in the capital. The homeland (nutag) associations play a seemingly powerful role as lobby organizations but also in creating provincial caucuses or networks of politicians with common provincial roots.
Yet, as with so many aspects of Mongolian politics, this regional structuring does not translate into substantive politics. While it may have its roots in countryside organizations, it would be difficult to identify policies that the MPP has pursued or initiated of the past 25 years that offer more benefits to the countryside. At least rhetorically, the DP does appear to focus on Ulaanbaatar, but it does not seem to do so at the expense of rural development.
Likewise, it would be very difficult to divide aimags into political camps by sorting them as to the impact of mining on regional economies. While the impact of large-scale mining has been significant in some Gobi aimags and largely absent from Western aimags, this difference does not seem to translate into different political allegiances, last least not as mapped onto party politics.
The Roots of Presidential Candidates
Pres. Elbegdorj has long been identified as the leading politician from Khovd. Uvs is another Western aimag that has been over-represented in current Mongolian politics.
The current three candidates are almost equally clearly identified with specific aimags.
Even though Enkhbold M has been elected to the State Great Khural from Tov, he is very much rooted in Ulaanbaatar. His political career began in Ulaanbaatar and his power within the MPP seems to derive from his command over the capital political machinery.
Will his Ulaanbaatar roots allow him to garner significant support in the capital where voters have previously been loyal to the DP? Or will DP loyalists eschew Enkhbold, but also not vote for their party’s more rural candidate, Battulga? Will they lend their votes in protest to populist Ganbaatar in significant numbers?
Battulga is firmly rooted in Bayankhongor. He emphasizes his rural origins and seemed to rule Bayankhongor as “his” aimag for many years until his electoral defeat in 2016. Bayankhongor is wrecked by wide-spread “ninja” mining, but has benefitted relatively little from large scale industrial mining. His populist streak will likely lead him to question the benefits that nation-wide economic development (including development rooted in mining) will have for aimags that do not benefit directly.
But, his defeat in Bayankhongor call his potential appeal in other non-urban ridings into question. His populism might play well with some voters in Ulaanbaatar, but it will also put off some of their core electorate who still see the DP as a guarantor of democracy and further democratic development. Some of those urban voters may well turn away from all three candidates if loyalty does not persuade them to support Battulga.
Ganbaatar was also born in Bayankhongor which further reinforces the sense of two candidates (Genco and Feng Shui) lining up against one front-runner, as two candidates from Bayankhongor against the Ulaanbaatar urbanite.
However, Ganbaatar does not play up his Bayankhongor roots much. His appeal is largely that of a populist who does not even bother to offer simple solutions for complex challenges as so many other populists around the world do, but by asking simplistic questions of complex challenges. His popularity is said to be highest in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts. His simple questions to complex challenges will play well among some voters, and will offer a chance at a significant protest to others, but it is unclear that he will be able to make in roads with rural voters who have long-standing loyalties to the DP or, more commonly the MVP.
The Impact of Regional Dynamics on the Outcome
The extent to which Ulaanbaatar voters will chose to protest or abstain with their votes may well determine the outcome of the election. If large numbers of urban voters stay away from the polls, Enkhbold’s chances at winning the first round of the election will rise. If urban voters will increase their participation as they did in 2016, a second round seems more likely, and their mobilization may well shape the outcome of that second round.