Back to the 2008 Future in Voting?

By Enkhtsetseg D and Julian Dierkes

After toying with the idea of a mixed electoral system, in which 50 seats were to be distributed based on the FPTP system and 26 seats to be distributed proportionally from an open party list, the ruling MPP took many by surprise this week with a new proposal to use the block vote system. 

The Case for Block Voting

The system, otherwise known as the plurality-at-large voting, or multiple non-transferable vote, has been previously used twice in Mongolia, 1992 and 2008 parliamentary elections – of course, 2008 was the only election to result in post-election violence in Mongolia’s democratic history. As the Election Law is anticipated to go to a final vote later this week, surprisingly the Democratic Party and other smaller parties appear to support this system. Reasons cited by different parties justifying the use of system include:  

  • campaign costs will decrease
  • less vote buying 
  • less vote-padding by moving voters from one constituency to another
  • it is easier to understand for voters
  • less pork barrel politics
  • no risk of a constitutional challenge on elements of proportional representation

Some have argued this option is the lesser of two evils, as the 2016 Constitutional Court ruling rendered any form of proportional element impossible to adopt, leaving only two options: majoritarian ridings or this  block vote. 

It is unlikely that campaign expenses will decrease under this system. In fact campaign costs have continued to increase from one election to another and the 2008 election was not an exception: 

Election Campaign Expenditure and GDP

Parliamentary Election Expenditures (parties and candidates, in MNT millions) GDP per capita (MNT thousands)
1992 13.7 25.9
1996 209.3 326.6
2000 1,841.8 490.6
2004 1,558.4 858.0
2008 7,978.3 2,480.2
2012 36,863 5,876.8
2016 34,360.2 7,642.9

Source: C Burcher and F Casal Bértoa. 2018. Political Finance in Mongolia – Assessment and Recommendations. Open Society Forum and International IDEA, p. 19

Opposition to Block Voting

Plurality-at-large voting is rare in national elections, though a little more common in local elections across the world. The main criticism of block voting is that the results poorly reflect voters’ intentions.

For parties, it is also very challenging to make strategic decisions about support for candidates. If adopted for the 2020 election, it is likely that DP, MPP and MPRP will run full slates of candidates, but smaller parties may only run single candidates in multi-member districts to avoid cannibalizing their votes.

There are some who oppose the proposed system, citing the memory of the tragic events following the 2008 election. Counting tabulation is not an easy task for this system, especially if manual counting is in practice. As mentioned in the UPR report submitted to the OHCHR by Mongolian NGOs in 2010, “During the 2008 Parliamentary elections, polling station election committees worked continuously for a total of 87 hours with actual vote-taking lasting 15 hours and counting of ballots 72 hours. It is clear that with such a workload, both efficiency of the committee and reliability of vote counting results become questionable.” The 2008 election is the reason why Mongolia turned to automated vote counting in 2012, which has remained in use ever since despite suspicions and distrust often voiced by different parties when it is close to elections.  While the ballot scanning technology might help Mongolians avoid the same problems that surfaced in 2008, it is worth remembering that according to the current draft law on State Great Hural elections, electoral audit or manual vote counting is supposed to take place in 50 percent of all polling stations. 

Among the other justifications cited by those who oppose the proposed Block vote system include: 

  • it is not conducive to promoting representation of women, youth and less known candidates 
  • it will fuel intra-party competition, further weakening the institutionalization of political parties 
  • results are not proportional
  • it is confusing to voters

On the matter of representation of women in particular, note that the women’s caucus had proposed raising the female candidate quota from 20% to 30% but this was rejected in parliament.

The Folly of Last-Minute Selection of an Electoral System

There are no perfect electoral systems. All of them have their (dis)advantages. That does not mean that they do not make a difference, it just means that the choice has to be made deliberately to maximize particular goals.

In Mongolia, the choice of an electoral system has been made in haste for at least the past 3 parliamentary elections. There is no principle harm in this choice (although the block vote is rather unusual to be used in a national election and there are good reasons why that is), but the process is not conducive to careful deliberation of the (dis)advantages of that choice.

As can be seen in the rejection of an increased women’s candidate quota, it is too easy to make a hasty decision on the electoral system when this is left to the very last moment.

About Enkhtsetseg

Enkhtsetseg is an election and governance specialist with a particular expertise in political finance and election-related issues and regulations in Mongolia. She is currently working as governance program manager at Open Society Forum Mongolia. 

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