By Judith Nordby
Did online news sites reflect voters’ concerns and their opinions of the candidates in the recent election? This I asked myself while consulting Mongolian language sites – written by Mongolians for Mongolians. Ikon.mn, news.mn, sonin.mn and dnn.mn were interesting and informative but I also checked sites close to political forces and business interests for alternative opinion. Interviews, journalistic coverage, campaign reports and party/candidate statements revealed that economic problems – unemployment, poverty and national debt – were fundamental for voters. Some thought international mining companies operating in Mongolia was economically good for the country, others that it drained national wealth. There were many calls for incompetent and corrupt politicians linked to corruption scandals such as the Tg60bn affair and the SME Fund. Personal attacks on individuals as liars, thieves, swindlers, and murderers conveyed strong feelings while supporters praised the same people as patriots, honest, professional and hard-working. There was clamour for the removal of politicians who had dominated government for three decades, especially members of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the Democratic Party (DP), in favour of younger, better-qualified people, especially economists, who were not tarnished by corruption. In compliance with election and transparency legislation, the details of candidates’ incomes and assets were made available and displayed in user-friendly format on Ikon.mn alongside regular news items. However, other candidate information, such as education, familial relationships and employment history, which are always of concern to voters, was generally patchy. Slander, false news and ‘politically motivated polls’ were officially forbidden. The media were understandable cautious about what they published for fear of punishment as a 2019 human rights report, had stated; comments on news posts ceased during the three-week campaign. However between the lines, election accounts, interviews and expert opinion continued to convey some of the public feeling.
Is it legal to remand electoral candidates?
Questions of justice and legality attracted much attention. During the constitutional amendment debate (See Constitutional Amendments Adopted) many strong opinions were expressed about the appointment of judges and the danger of greater political control of the judiciary. During the election period, news items reflected the belief of the public and members of different parties that the justice system was being used as a means of silencing political opponents. N Nomtoibayar is a case in point; he was registered as an independent candidate in Khan Uul on 2 June and arrested on 6 June charged with giving false evidence over a suspicious death and abuse of power in the allocation of loans when minister of labour and social protection (2016-2018). Lawyers and supporters claimed the custody violated the 2019 election law because a candidate may not be detained without the Election Commission’s consent. Nomtoibayar is not alone; other high profile candidates currently in jail include the DP’s S Bayartsogt, D Ganbold and B Byambasaikhan for involvement in the controversial Oyu Tolgoi mining agreements of 2009 and 2015. J Erdenebat (MPP) faces charges of fraudulent acquisition of land and a mining licence when he was premier (2016-2017). When offered bail well above the penalty stipulated in the criminal code, he said he could not pay and was jailed. Court hearings for these candidates were regularly postponed and supporters, including Nomtoibayar’s father, continued campaigning on the candidates’ behalf. In a letter published online Nomtoibayar protested his innocence and a ‘Free Nomt Movement’ has demonstrated for his release. It is claimed that Nomtoibayar’s real crime is crossing swords with premier Khurelsukh over the SME scandal and demanding his dismissed; Nomtoibayar was expelled from the MPP and resigned from parliament in January 2019. In the eyes of his supporters, though, he is honest and one of the ‘good guys’ notwithstanding his considerable wealth and family links with the mining company, Mongolyn Alt. Ultimately, he was not elected and Erdenebat was the only detainee to win although whether he will be able to take up his seat, is open to question. A court statement in response to the challenges maintains that custody of a candidate is not illegal if an investigation began before the election period. Critics say that the whole business undermines confidence in the primary court system.
A most unusual election
Campaigns from jail were unprecedented but the 2020 election was unusual in other ways: Covid-19 restrictions limited campaigning; there was heavy rain and flooding, and power cuts and lightning strikes to polling stations. The introduction of multi-candidate constituencies caused confusion and rumours spread about the new voting rules. Nevertheless the turnout of 74% was the highest in ten years but the lowest showing was in the 18-24 age group, dashing hopes that youth participation would swing the vote away from the two-party dominance of MANAN. The MPP emerged victorious.
When online comment reappeared on the media the next day the consensus was that the DP had lost because it was weak and disunited; its leader S Erdene resigned. The MPP attributed its own success to achievements in government since 2016 and to public confidence in its next programme. Media comments offer alternative reasons: first-time voters did not have sufficient information to make confident choices while the MPP victory was not so much a sign of satisfaction with the party and premier, U Khurelsukh, but of greater dissatisfaction with the DP. Even before voting started, some were put off by R Amarjagal, the DP’s choice, saying he would only be a front man for the unpopular Erdene. At the very least, it seems that the electorate had little stomach for yet another hung parliament or space for independents; for older voters, stability was important. There have been claims that the electronic voting system was hacked or faulty, to the particular detriment of independents, and appeals to void the results, though whether any will be overturned remains to be seen. The bigger questions are: will the electorate get a government with honest and capable politicians, will election promises be kept and will citizen’s lives, incomes and opportunities improve.
About Judith Nordby
Judith Nordby is former head of Mongolian Studies at the University of Leeds, now Honorary Fellow in Mongolian Studies and consultant on contemporary Mongolian affairs.