Democratic Convulsions

By Julian Dierkes

Two ongoing convulsions of democracy are having me reflect on Mongolia, elections, and political system challenges: the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

According to Katie Putz, one of the choices that is coming out of the revolutionary upheavals of the past month in Kyrgyzstan is whether to return to a pre-2010 presidential system or stick with a more parliamentary emphasis.

Kyrgyzstan is of some relevance to Mongolia in that of the post-state socialist or post-Soviet Central Asian countries, it seems closest behind Mongolia on some kind of path to democracy. Mendee has made the Mongolia-Kyrgyzstan comparison most explicitly in his dissertation and has pointed to the continued role of the former ruling party, the Mongolian People’s (Revolutionary) Party, as one of the important aspects of the institutionalization of democracy in Mongolia. Yet, in the current situation, some clear differences are emerging between the two while some questions might be raised above similarities.

I would argue that Mongolian democracy is far more stable than the Kyrgyz version has been. Some of that has to do with path dependence and the fact that there has not been any kind of revolutionary moment in Mongolia after 1990, so with every extra year of a functioning democracy, stability becomes more and more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I find it interesting, however, that the political systems question has come up again in the Kyrgyz context. This has been a question that has been gaining in prominence in Mongolia. I do not really know whether there was debate around this topic in the 1990s, but it is a question that Pres Battulga seems to like to pose, presumably in part because he sees an opportunity for himself in shifting to a more presidential system.

For the moment, however, last year’s constitutional changes have titled the balance further toward a parliamentary system. While the Prime Minister has been given more power (appointing his cabinet, for example, rather than having them vote on by parliament), the Ikh Khural has gained some investigatory power and it remains to be seen whether stipulations limiting the number of MPs to serve in cabinet are actually an increase in legislative power for the parliament or a weakening.

Mining

Another aspect of discussions about Kyrgyzstan has also bubbled up and leads me to a Mongolia connection.

As much as various populist appeals come up in Mongolian elections, I do see big differences between these and Japarov’s apparent attempts to mobilize revolutionary fervour in Kyrgyzstan by laying claims to mining projects. 

Mining is a much smaller sector in Kyrgyzstan than in Mongolia and Mongolians have, in fact, benefitted from their mining industry in a way that is not so obvious in Kyrgyzstan, partly because of the scale of the projects. While questions around the fairness of the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement and all its amendments can never really be settled, many Mongolians have benefitted from mining activities, whether that be directly, through jobs, or via taxation and public benefits. While Kyrgyz’ claims to mining projects may be a corrupt power grab, in the Mongolian context, despite all the claims about corruption about such large projects as Erdenet, nationalization or anything like it would very much seem like killing the goose that lays golden eggs. That seems less likely to be a winning political strategy in Mongolia than it appears to be in Kyrgyzstan.

United States

Two things have surprised me online in the past several days since the U.S. presidential election: 1. number of voices supporting Trump out of “strategic partnership” gratitude/loyalty, 2. number of disparaging comments about Trump’s claims at election fraud.

Gratitude for the Strategic Partnership

I have been puzzled by the flurry of diplomatic activity between the U.S. and Mongolia that occurred in 2019. Given a completely erratic foreign policy under Trump, the only rhyme I could make of this was that Trump thought that being nice to Mongolia would somehow offend the Chinese regime, something that he would take delight in. In this case, the being nice was the announcement of a “strategic partnership”, something that successive Mongolian presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers had craved. But gratitude and loyalty to Donald Trump because of that? I do not quite see that. It is not that this partnership came out of thin air, it had been a Mongolian foreign policy aim for some time. And it is hard to think that Donald Trump really understood must of what is involved in any kind of partnership. Yet, some Mongolian tweeps were cheering Trump on during and after the election professing some kind of loyalty.

Election Fraud

Trump’s claims at election fraud have seemed ludicrous and very anti-democratic by baselessly undermining trust in elections.

Sound familiar?

I was surprised to see some Mongolian voices mocking these claims by Trump, but not noticing that this is very much a pattern after all Mongolian elections. Unsubstantiated allegations of fraud? Yup, by the dozen and from all directions. No matter whether DP or MPP, all sides are always accusing each other of fraud, but seem reluctant to step forward with any kind of proof. Frequently, when I give presentations about Mongolian democracy, someone in the audience will pipe up with, “But you know the elections are fake!” And somehow these claims do not seem undemocratic when they are made about Mongolian elections, but they do seem so when Trump makes them about the U.S.. 

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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