Protests… and then?

By Julian Dierkes

I have recently written about widespread political frustration in 2018 and speculated on the kind of events/issues that might trigger mass protests.

Now, let me consider what would happen in the event of such protests. I am only considering mass protests, most likely centred on Ulaanbaatar but possibly spreading to other cities and towns as well. By “mass” I mean demonstrations/protests of 30,000 or more. Given Mongolia’s population of just over 3m people, that would be a significant mobilization of protest.

No Violence

I believe that the risk for violence or anything resembling civil war is low. My main reason for believing this is that following the July 1 2008 riots, the police has been preparing for how to handle such protests, including strategies for de-escalation and crowd control. Obviously, such training and planning is no guarantee that violence does not break out, but even if it did, I believe that it would be sporadic and would not escalate further.

The second, long-standing reason that any kind of sustained violence is very unlikely is the total neutrality of the military since 1990. While various other parts of the security apparatus may be under more direct political control and thus could become elements in some kind of internal struggle, that is not the case for the military.

For a more pointed discussion of the likelihood of violence or riots, see Mendee’s post on that topic.

Will Protests Beget More Protests?

The biggest questions regarding the impact protests might have would be, how big – in terms of participation – they become, how long they last, and whether they start making any concrete political demands.

As soon as any sizeable protests begin, there will certainly be politicians who might try to hi-jack them. There will also be a lot of speculation about various politicians being involved in conspiracies to foster unrest of some kind or another. And, there is no way to exclude the possibility that some political actors might try to organize and hi-jack protests. This is one of the reasons that I believe a series of protest events is more likely than one cataclysmic event.

Protesters

The demographic composition of protesters is very difficult to predict and will very much depend on the issue and triggering event that will produce protests. Broadly speaking, protests focused on livelihood and daily necessities will find brought support in poorer segments of the population. This would be largely residents of the khashaa districts and outlying areas of Ulaanbaatar, although the city seems to be increasingly blending in terms of the distribution of poverty and wealth. Mobilization of poorer Red Heroes is probably most worrisome to current political leaders in that it would be hard to predict what topics would animate demonstrations and where such demonstrations might lead.

For other issues, say gender-based violence or corruption, perhaps, the more educated and generally more affluent residents of the city centre might be more likely protesters.

Demographic developments might also play a role in coming protests in that the age cohort from 15-24 is shrinking relative to other age groups. Adults from 25-49 years-old who might be more likely to engage in protest, but resist more extreme forms of confrontation are growing in their share of the population.

For demonstrations to really gain traction, of course, a broad coalition of protesters would be needed.

Protest Leaders

As protests form, there will be some kind of leadership that will emerge and that will be credible in its leadership to participants of the protests. The most likely candidates for protest leadership roles apart from current politicians would be urban repats, that is educated, professional Mongolians with experience abroad who perhaps feel the current political frustration most acutely, having witnessed the workings of democratic governments elsewhere and the relatively high likelihood of success of further democratization in Mongolia.

Yet, there are some questions about whether these urban professionals would be able to capture the imagination of the poorer population on the fringes of the capital or in the countryside. Politics is already so Ulaanbaatar-centric, it would seem that if protests were essentially limited to issues of concern to the urban centre of Ulaanbaatar, broad-based support may be unlikely.

Let’s consider some scenarios of how protests might play out in the short term.

State of Emergency

If there is any hint of rioting or violence, security forces will be mobilized and a a state of emergency will be called very quickly, I suspect. A state of emergency can be declared by any member of the National Security Council, i.e. president, prime minister or chair of parliament, but it needs to be declared by the president and approved by parliament. Such a state of emergency might involve curfews (as it did in 2008), a visible security presence, and temporary suspension of rights to assemble and protest, for example.

Press coverage by foreign media would most likely be intense, in part because some political actors would be likely to try to exploit momentary turmoil to present themselves as possible reformers or guarantors of peace.

Strong Man?

In the event of large-scale protests and especially if violence happens or is threatened, a number of politicians will certainly present themselves as saviours of security.

Until the 2021 presidential election, Pres. Battulga would almost certainly present himself in such a way. I would not expect that he would stage any kind of coup, but he would certainly try to stretch the institutional limits of democratic governance to offer himself as a “strong man”. This might be a soft version of how Pres Erdogan responded to the “coup” against him in Turkey in 2016.

Yet, I do not think that Battulga’s offer would have much credibility. His first year in office has shown him to be opportunistic in jumping on specific issues, but he has not demonstrated that he has any kind of political agenda himself, nor that he has much to offer in terms of cleaning up corruption or affecting positive outcomes or implementation of laws. While his brand of martial-arts-thuggish leadership may appeal to some protestors, I do not think that this would be very credible.

On the other hand, Pres. Battulga seems unlikely to consider any foreign reactions to any attempts to grab more power for the presidency. He would be or at least present himself to be impervious to foreign demands for a reinforcement of democracy, for example.

Reformers?

It seems like a significant number of current politicians would try to seize the moment of protests and present themselves as reformers, particularly if protests focus on issues that seem to demand reform.

Some possibilities that present themselves in Fall 2018:

  1. Former president N Enkhbayar has certainly been coming back onto the political stage with vigour. He appears or presents himself as independent of the MAHAH fog, even though he is an old political fox himself, of course. But the only way to some kind of immediate power for him would be a mass-defection of MPs, especially from the MPP. That seems fairly unlikely, so, the protest moment itself seems like an unlikely time for Enkhbayar to make a comeback. S Ganbaatar has presented himself as somewhat of an understudy to Enkhbayar since his presidential candidacy in 2017. He could also claim the mantle of a protest movement. B Javkhlan remains an enigmatic figure in parliament, but that enigma might also make him available as a figure to rally around if he joins in protests or demonstrations.
  2. There are a number of individuals in both parties who have presented themselves as outsiders or reformers in the past and who might make such a pitch. In the DP, R Amarjargal comes to mind, recalling his failed (for lack of funding, apparently) nomination bid to become the DP’s candidate in the 2017 presidential election. Former Ulaanbaatar mayor E Bat-Uul has also inserted himself somewhat quietly into a number of debates over the past several years. His indirect entanglements in alleged offshore holdings might hold him back on corruption issues, however.
  3. In the MPP, U Khurelsukh initially presented himself as a reformer when he became prime minister in 2017, but his performance since then has not really reinforced that. Perhaps L Oyunerdene could be such a person as he has been positioning himself by putting pressure on M Enkhbold to respond to ₮60b allegations. There would be other possibilities in both parties as well.

But, if protests focused on political parties, it would seem that party-internal claims to reformer status would also lack credibility with protesters. That is, protesters might agree to such claims initially and thus give someone momentum for party reforms, but many Mongolians would be quite skeptical on the implementation of such reforms and watch rather closely and carefully.

This is one of the scenarios that makes me think that coming years might bring a series of protest and reform events and moments, rather than a single, punctuated moment.

Parliamentary Reaction

In the current parliament, it seems highly unlikely that protests and demonstrations could actually bring about change. While I could imagine a number of MPs reacting to protests, it is hard to imagine a number large enough that this would actually force a change of government. The MPP majority at 65 of 76 seats is so massive that it is difficult to imagine a scenario where enough of them would join a new political grouping to bring about a change of government. Even if that were to happen, they would be subject to the same low expectations by protesters that would hold for individual reforms as I mentioned above.

What if a significant number of MPs resigned their seats? Dissolution to force new elections requires a two-thirds majority, i.e. 51 members, although I am uncertain whether that would change if seats are unfilled or if that is 2/3 of members present or of 76. An unlikely alternative in the scenarios under consideration here is a resignation by the president. A third alternative is dissolution by the president which could be part of a strategy for a president to offer himself as “strong man”, but the circumstances of such dissolution are unclear. A mass resignation of MPs, say 20 of the 76, might make such a scenario more likely, however.

Sudden elections, however, would seem to offer little opportunity to bring about real change in terms of the main frustrations of voters, as they would be dominated by existing parties, i.e. the MPP and DP. In the case of sudden elections, if would seem likely that government would change, but not that political culture would be reformed. And any change that is not real change bears the potential of deepening a (sense of) crisis quickly.

In a subsequent post, I will consider the medium-term consequences of protest events.

This entry was posted in Civil Society, Corruption, Democracy, Human Rights, Inequality, Judiciary, Nationalism, Policy, Politics, Protest, Public Opinion, Security Apparatus, Social Movements, Ulaanbaatar, Younger Mongolians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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