Zoom: Mongolia Election Preview, June 1

On June 1, just before the official start of the election campaign in Mongolia, I presented a preview of the election in a Zoom session.

Watch the recording of my presentation here:


Somehow, I skipped over my introduction slide. In it I acknowledged that I am not on my own in covering the election, but that I very much benefit from, nay rely on conversations with my fellow bloggers: Dr. J Mendee, Dr. D Byambajav, Dr. Marissa Smith and B Bulgan.

Slide 8 discussed the age breakdown of candidates in the MPP to examine the extent to which PM U Khurelsukh’s control of nominations has brought about generational change. As I discovered after the presentation, some of these numbers were wrong since there was a mistake in a spreadsheet that I was working off.

Correct numbers are:
Average age (2200-year of birth, not precise to actual birthday) of 76 MPP candidates: 48.75
Distribution across generations (decades): 1950s 5 | 1960s 20 | 1970s 45 | 1980s 6

Learning about recordings of Zoom sessions, next time I might close my view of participants so that this is not recorded along with me, if I can figure out how to do that. In this version I have placed a black block over participants’ images.


Participants in the Zoom session seemed keen on further sessions during/after the election, we have scheduled an update for June 12.

Posted in Democracy, Democratic Party, Elections, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Public Opinion, Video | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Four Things We Learned from Young Voters’ Survey


Youth abstention is fast becoming a hot topic in Mongolia as the parliamentary elections come right around the corner. This is partly because, in this year’s elections, both major and new parties, such as the National Labor Party, have nominated an unprecedented number of “younger” and “fresher” candidates, all banking on the youth vote. Moreover, various non-partisan NGOs, local and international, are in a buzz of activity, all undertaking projects aimed at raising the youth turnout in June.

As part of such initiatives, with the help of the Zorig Foundation, I have had the opportunity to conduct a modest online survey of 680 respondents between 18 and 25 years old. With this survey, we attempted to gain insights into the most prevalent individual reasons for why some young people decide to vote whereas others do not. The survey was supported by the campaign, “Strengthening Women and Youth Engagement in the Electoral and Political Processes in Mongolia,” which is being funded by the USAID and implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Asia Foundation (TAF).

A variety of complex causes influence the electoral turnout of young voters. Factors such as the nature of Mongolia’s current two-party system, the majoritarian bias in the electoral rules, the quality of the election campaigns, and the list of candidates are all arguably important factors that influence the turnout. However, these “systemic” or “macro” factors were beyond the scope of this survey.

Due to the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, we were not able to draw a random sample that is representative of all eligible voters under 25 in the capital city Ulaanbaatar. Nor can we conduct face to face interviews with a large number of people. Instead, we used an online survey method with a self-selected sample. Hence, because of the non-random sampling technique we used, I urge caution when making inferences about the population parameters based on the results of this survey. With these caveats out of the way, here are four important takeaways from what we’ve learned about young voters.

One: Among those who voted in 2016 elections, most believe voting is their civic duty

To gain an understanding of the factors that influence young voters to go to the polls, the survey asked the following question from the respondents who voted in 2016 elections: “People participate in elections and cast their vote for a variety of reasons. As for you, what were the most important reasons that motivated you to participate in the 2016 parliamentary elections?” The participants were allowed to provide as many as four answers and to fill in their answers if they so desired.

As Figure 1 shows, an overwhelming majority (82 percent) said they voted because voting is a civic duty. Fifty seven percent believe that their vote matters and that they thought they could influence its outcome by participating in the election. Also, 28 percent turned out to vote because their family or friends urged them to do so. Surprisingly, a much lower percentage of young voters, 21 percent, in our survey were retrospective voters, i.e., voters who evaluate the incumbent government’s performance in the past four years to decide how to vote. Likewise, those who turned out to vote because they liked/disliked a candidate/party were only 14 percent each. One could interpret these results to mean that partisan politics and ideological or policy debates do not strongly influence young voters’ decision to vote. Instead, most young voters vote in order to affirm societal norms or due to family pressures.

Finally, contrary to the widespread allegations of vote-buying during the 2016 elections, only three individuals said they voted for a candidate/party because they received gifts and money from a politician. Although this result might have underestimated the true extent of vote-buying due to a social desirability bias among the respondents, it is unlikely to have been a significant influence since the survey was anonymous.

Two: Young voters prioritize candidate-specific factors, especially level of education and career history

The survey asked: “what influenced you the most when it comes to your decision to cast your vote for a specific candidate in 2016 parliamentary elections?” Figure 2 suggests that the most crucial factor influencing the youth vote in 2016 was the candidates’ level of education and career history. One-third of the respondents who turned out in 2016 supported a candidate who was the most educated and had a distinguished career history in their mind. Three focus group interviews we conducted following this survey reinforced this result. On numerous occasions, focus group participants communicated their displeasure with some of the current MPs they described as “uneducated” and talking “nonsense.” When we asked why young voters should come out and vote in elections, they replied that because of their lackluster political participation, the older folks are electing “unqualified” and “uneducated” people who are running this country. They further asserted that if more young voters came out to vote, the government would be more competent and capable.

The survey reveals that family pressure was the second most crucial factor influencing how the youth voted in 2016. Twenty nine percent of those who participated in the elections voted for a candidate because their parents or other family members told them to do so. Given that young voters may lack experience with politics, it makes sense that their family members’ preferences may influence them.

The third most important factor was the parties’ electoral campaign platforms/promises. Specifically, parties’ campaign platforms/promises influenced about 21 percent of the young voters in our sample that participated in the 2016 elections. Next, 20 percent said they voted for a candidate they thought were most trustworthy, 17 percent said they voted for a random candidate because they were not sufficiently informed to make a substantive decision. About 13 percent voted for a politician because he/she looked more familiar. These findings are consistent with what we learned from our focus group interviews. Some participants expressed frustration with the lack of useful and objective information that could help them differentiate the candidates. Young voters said that information on the candidates’ level of education, age, career history, as well as short summaries of the most critical election platform/promises would help them make an informed decision on how and whom to vote for in the upcoming elections.

These results suggest that young voters are overwhelmingly non-partisan (only 14 percent have a favourite party) and hence were less inclined to prioritize the candidates’ partisan labels in the 2016 elections. Instead, young voters tended to examine the candidates directly without paying much attention to which party or coalition the candidates represented. Among the candidate-specific attributes, they cared most about the level of education, career history, and trustworthiness. The survey also asked about what the respondents will prioritize in the 2020 elections, and the results remain largely the same. Specifically, 56 percent of the respondents who are planning to vote in 2020 said they would look closely at the candidates’ career history, 52 percent said they would prioritize the candidate’s education, 39 percent the parties’ platforms/promises, and 37 percent candidates with a clean reputation. In contrast, only 7 percent said they would consider which party or coalition the candidates represent. These results suggest that in the context of this year’s multi-member majoritarian voting, a (young) voter might potentially vote for candidates from multiple different parties.

Three: Young voters care most about education reform

We asked young voters to rate the most pressing socio-political issues they want the next parliament to prioritize. Figure 3 shows that the number one issue they care about is education reform. In our focus group interviews, many participants reiterated this point as well. The participants were highly critical of the lack of a civic education curriculum that teaches about the core principles of democracy in Mongolia’s secondary schools. Others expressed their uneasiness about the growing inequality of access to higher education. These issues identified as most pressing by young voters are different from what the general population sees as the most important socio-political issues. According to the Sant Maral Foundation’s latest political barometer, education was ranked seventh pressing issue, with only 6.3 percent of the sample identifying it as an important concern. Thus, young voters have interests that are distinct from the general population.

Four: To have their unique interests reflected in public policy, they must vote

The principle of “one person, one vote” that underlies democratic elections entails that citizens, regardless of wealth, gender, and other factors, have an equal say in public policy. So, the equality of the franchise equalizes all citizens’ political influence. Nevertheless, this applies only to those who turn out to vote. If a significant segment of the public, such as youth, abstains from voting, then a distortion in democratic representation and accountability mechanisms occurs. According to the National Statistics Office of Mongolia, the turnout among voters under 25 in the last parliamentary elections was 51 percent, the lowest rate among all other age groups. Given that nearly half of young voters did not participate in the electoral process, it is safe to assume that policy-makers are neglecting the distinct interests of the youth and the issues they face.

When we asked from the respondents who abstained in 2016 why they did not vote, 36 percent said they were too busy to vote, 31 percent thought the candidates were not trustworthy, and 28 percent believed that it did not matter who was elected. Despite these reasons, to have their interests and concerns be reflected in public policy, Mongolia’s youth must vote in June. Part of the problem of youth abstention indeed lies with the political parties that refuse to compete based on programs and ideas. The electoral system is indeed inimical towards non-establishment candidates, thus discouraging young voters to participate. Furthermore, I share the sentiment that the candidates seldom are distinguishable from each other. Nor are they ever trustworthy.

Nevertheless, if young voters sit and wait for perfect candidates, they will wait for a long time. Even if it seems that candidates are all falling short of our expectations, is it not prudent to choose the ones who are less worse than the others? With the Covid-19 lockdown, universities, bars, clubs, and other establishments will remain closed. Hence, I expect that a much smaller number of young voters will say that they were too busy to vote after this year’s elections. And given the record number of younger and fresh candidates, I hope that young voters not make the same complaint that the candidates were indistinguishable.

About Boldsaikhan

Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a PhD candidate of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo Japan. He is an advisor to the Zorig Foundation as well as a host of the “54 Cups of Coffee” Podcast and “Bodcast” Podcast. Twitter: @BoldSambuu

Posted in Boldsaikhan Sambuu, Elections, Ikh Khural 2016, Ikh Khural 2020, Party Politics, Younger Mongolians, Youth | Leave a comment

Imagining A Perfect Election Day and Joint Observation Mission in Mongolia

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Mongolia will be the second northeast Asian country to conduct a parliamentary election amidst the current pandemic following South Korea. Learning from my Korean colleagues, the South Korean parliamentary election was successful with the highest voter turnout for a parliamentary election since 1996. But, we can easily imagine how hard it was for organizers who were thinking of all worst-case scenarios and preparing for each. Here is an excellent article, written by my colleague Dongwoo Kim.

Elections in South Korea

Since South Korea has been dealing with the community spread of the virus, voters were divided into three categories and voted separately. The first category includes those with confirmed and suspected patients with COVID-19. 13,642 out of 59, 918 voters in this category casted their vote in advance between March 24 and 28. The second category voters are those in self-quarantine: recent travellers and those recovered from the virus. They voted within a specific timeframe at the designated polling stations. The third category refers to all other voters. All voters are required to keep one-meter distance, wear masks, have the temperature checked, and wear gloves. If one shows fever, he/she would be escorted by people with space suites (PPEs) to a secluded, covered booth. Because of the pandemic, South Korea suspended overseas voting, which is relevant to over 86,000 voters living abroad. Although it is hard to compare South Korea and Mongolia, there are some valuable lessons. One is the clear designation, empowerment of the lead agency – which needs to be under the control of politically-neutral, professionals. In South Korean case, the National Elections Commission (NEC) was in control. The second is clear, immediate communication with voters. This certainly increases the trust and participation of voters. The third is the respect and obey the law, especially political leaders, parties, and all candidates; otherwise, there are always possibility to politicize anything. In South Korea, all obeyed the country’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act as well as safety rules and regulations set and updated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korean Centres of Disease Control.

A Perfect Election Day on June 24 in Mongolia 

Let’s imagine a perfect election day. On sunny morning, quarter to 7 am, elders dressed up as usual lining up near the polling stations while waiting for election officials make the final check. A young election worker is kindly reminding them keeping 1.5 metre distance and wearing masks. Some nod, while all want to chat. As day reaches the typical June average temperature (22-25°), refreshing breeze travels around and light intermittent drizzles cool down a bit frustrated voters from standing on long, slow-advancing queues  outside the polling stations. Kids are playing around joyfully and enjoying their treats (esp., ice cream cones). But, elders are still rumouring in the shadows and never stopping to ask if voted, to whom voted for, and whom should vote for.

As election workers start feeling their tiredness by the evening, young voters are crowding the polling stations. Many don’t even listen to election workers’ reminder of safe distancing, wearing masks, and hand sanitizing, but a few youth easily get lost inside and start asking how to vote. By late evening, around 9-ish, a live counting from the General Election Commission becomes the most favourite show for all adults. That annoys toddlers and kids  – who used to control the TVs. News channels report about some trouble-makers especially around these hours as many showed up just before the closing of the stations at 10 pm. By midnight, people were still staring the live broadcast, however, some decided to hear the final results – of very remote soums of Bayan Ulgii province in the morning. But, for parties, candidates, and close supporters, a day is just starting. Winners begin their victory parties, losers drink and strategize how to reject the results. In contrast, poorly paid election workers, over 9,000 public servants, plus those assigned (IT folks, police, now doctors and emergency crews) are still wondering if their stations are included in the manual counting (50 percent). If it is included, they need to spend extra hours to recount.

To make this perfect day, three things must happen: (1) party leaders refrain making any victory statements until the GEC reports the final results, (2) candidates hold their temptations of cheating or causing chaos, and, (3) the emergency responders of the National Centre of Communicable Diseases receive a few manageable calls.

For sure, the General Election Commission and all public servants assigned for the election will make their best to conduct a successful election amidst of the pandemic outbreak. But, they face two major challenges to maintain the public trust.

First, the coronavirus is beyond their control; therefore, the situation can change immediately and only medical and emergency professionals know how to respond. Unlike South Korea, key decision-making powers of the State Emergency Commission and lead agency will remain under the ruling party officials. Even the ruling party puts true professionals in charge, many could easily suspect of politicization of the pandemic. Second, the rule of law is not truly independent at the moment. The practice of arresting and giving court dates prior to elections become normal process for a long time and becomes very complicated for ordinary people to comprehend. Given these circumstances of low trust, the only way for the GEC to defend their hard work is to have a joint team of Mongolian and international observers.

The Golden Opportunity for the Joint Observation Mission

Since 2013, Mongolia, as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), invited international observers. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a specialized election monitoring body of the OSCE, deployed long and short-term observers along with Mongolian local staffs for all elections. This year, the ODIHR, couldn’t send their Election Observation Mission. 

This prompts leaders of the General Election Commission (GEC) to ask around foreign embassies in Ulaanbaatar to observe the elections. For example, requests have made to the US Ambassador and UK Deputy Chief of Mission. Not surprisingly, GEC leaders are not so eager to permit Mongolian observers (e.g., Шударга сонгуулийн төлөө иргэний нийгмийн хяналт сүлжээ). This creates a golden opportunity for foreign embassies, international organizations, and Mongolian observers to work together to fill the gap of the OSCE to be neutral, fair observers for the work of the GEC amidst of pandemic fear and low trust in judiciary and law enforcement organizations. This is mutually beneficial for all parties. 

For foreign diplomats, especially those from the OCED, EU, and OSCE member countries, they are “stuck” in Mongolia until June 30. All have tasks of observing the political, social, and economic developments in Mongolia, keen interests of learning more about people, and have invaluable international experience to compare. It is quite easy to get organized in a short period of time since all embassies are well-settled and have logistics to support in-country travel. Moreover, June is the perfect timing for touring around the country. However, most diplomats lack the technical expertise and somewhat background knowledge of Mongolian elections and the dynamics. 

Here is the Network of Civil Society Organizations for Just Election (Шударга сонгуулийн төлөө иргэний нийгмийн хяналт сүлжээ) is a reliable local partner. It is evolved as a primary platform for encouraging youth to observe the electoral process (from law-making, to running, and to counting the results) and become critical voters. Starting from 2008 elections, the network has made contributions to improve the electoral process by pointing out deficiencies with facts and evidence. Instead of criticizing the lack of youth participation in the elections, the network dedicated time and resources for young observers (over 100 per election) to make contributions by understanding the importance of elections and participating in the implementation process.  Therefore, the network would complement the missing part of electoral technicality and share their long-accumulated expertise with foreign diplomats. 

This type of joint observation mission would make the GEC’s job easier. In addition to their enormous tasks of running the elections amidst of pandemic, they also need to accommodate requests of multiple international and local observers. If embassies and local civil society observers are get organized, this would make communications with the GEC less complicated and avoid from all potential complaints and mis-understanding involving foreign diplomats and observers. In fact, a joint statement of local and international observers would sound stronger and trust-worthier than random statements or tweets by diplomats. At the end, the joint observation mission would empower the civil society – esp., young observers and could make a fair defence for the GEC. 

Posted in Democracy, Elections, Ikh Khural 2020 | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Demos Party: Women Candidates, Multi-Ethnic Mongolia, and Third Party Rural Strategy

By Marissa J. Smith

Among the four independent parties we are following, the Demos (ЗОН) Party has an interesting mix of most sophisticated web presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, website, and even Wikipedia page!) and its fielding of candidates in every electoral district. At the same time, however, little information about individual candidates, and on the party website the head of the party, E. Odbayar (not running for Ikh Khural) states that more information about candidates will be available after the General Election Committee issues certifications. For now, the party website is announcing that 80% of its candidates are women (though the individual voices of the party online are all male). The posts about women candidates also mention an “EEJ” (“Mother”) movement, suggesting that the party recently unified with this non-party organization.

The party Instagram account also links to  the website http://www.tuurgatan.mn/, but it appears to not have been updated for some months, so it is an open question as to how much can be discerned about the current party “platform” from content there. More forcefully even than the party’s name “zon olon,” “tuurgatan” indicates a “Greater Mongolia” rather than “Khalkh-centric” (the political norm) orientation, the website has sections specific to Buryats, Tuvans, Kalmuks, Southern Mongolians, etc. (And nothing obvious about the high proportion of women candidates, at least.) The multi-ethnic orientation may be associated with the decision to field candidates in every electoral district, as populations in many outlying aimags and border areas strongly identify with non-Khalkh Mongol groups.


In addition to Demos, which is fielding candidates in every electoral district, two of the other independent parties are also fielding candidates in Govi-Altai (and only two other aimags each!). In addition to Govi-Altai’s being perhaps Mongolia’s most remote aimag, this also seems at first a curious choice since there are two MPP incumbents running there, enough to fill the district’s allocated seats in the Ikh Khural. Does the fact that the secretary of the Civil Will-Green Party (with the Ta Bidnii Esvel coalition) is also running there indicate that this is seen as a strategic district?

jeep with party flag on dirt road

Jeep campaigning for the Mongolian People’s Party in Bulgan aimag, parliamentary elections campaign, 2012. (photo by author)

Ease of campaigning and the ability to collect a high proportion by small number of votes appears to be a key logic here. I note that, among the aimags, Govi-Altai has the third lowest population of any of the districts, and this population is more concentrated in one soum (about 18,000 people) as compared to the populations of Dundgovi, Bulgan, and Sukhbaatar. Bulgan and Sukhbaatar in particular have been neglected by the third parties and coalitions in terms of distribution of candidates, even though no incumbents are running in Sukhbaatar (though two former aimag governors/zasag darga are). the other constituencies with lower total populations and only two seats allotted, Dundgovi and Umnugovi, both have more dispersed populations and are the major mining centers, home to Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi (Tsogtsetsii and Khanbogd soums each have over 8000 people).

Posted in Countryside, Democracy, Elections, Ethnic Groups, Gender, Geography, Ikh Khural 2020, Marissa Smith, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Covering 2020 Election

By Julian Dierkes

Mongolia Focus is facing a challenge! In all likelihood, due to COVID-19, none of our core team will be able to travel to Mongolia for the campaign, nor for the election itself.

Help us, dear readers, by being our eyes and ears, but even more importantly, if you read our posts regularly, please think about writing during the campaign/around the election!

Past Coverage

Our blog’s glorious history has spanned the last four national elections 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017. That’s why there’s an item for Elections in our menu bar. We have been very interested in elections as a moment when democratization crystallizes around a month-long event, and readers have been very interested to read analyses and observations about the election in English. Some of our past analyses have been possible from a distance (election platforms can be analyzed from afar), but other aspects have depended on one or (usually) more of us being in-country. A presence on the ground is especially important to get a feeling for voters’ and campaigners’ mood, to be able to observe campaign events and get a feeling for the personalities of candidates, and to be able to ask questions. This aspect will be missing almost certainly from our writing for the 2020 parliamentary election.

Writing for Mongolia Focus

Obviously, we will still do all the things we can do at a distance, because even more so as we will be eager to follow the campaign as it unfolds online and in documents even more.

But, we are also hoping that some of our regular readers might be inspired to take the leap from consumer of our analyses to contributor.

We are therefore eagerly hoping for expressions of interest, pitches, draft posts from all of you.

We hope that writing a guest post will be attractive to you because a) it contributes to greater understanding of Mongolian developments internationally (though we also have many readers within Mongolia, something we’ve always been proud of, i.e. many of you are interested in our analyses even though they appear in English and are somewhat removed from on-the-ground developments), b) you might be interested in this kind of analysis and writing, submitting a blog post might thus be a personal/professional development opportunity for you, and c) we have built credibility and thus an audience for our blog.

What Could We Be Looking For

Over the almost nine years of blogging, we have been scrupulously independent and non-partisan. That is an absolute precondition to publishing any guest posts. As an author, of course you have political opinions and you might even support a particular party or candidate, but in offering observations or analyses, you have to be aware of these preferences yourself and reflect on them as you write. Our analyses are only useful when most readers do not spend more time speculating about the conspiracies that we are a part of than actually engaging with analyses.

Most interesting during the election season will be topics such as the following:

  • analyses of campaign platforms
  • what campaign themes resonate with voters and why
  • regional aspects of campaigning, particular Ulaanbaatar vs. towns vs. countryside
  • gender balance of candidates and its meaning to voters
  • implications of campaign themes for future policy
  • trends in campaigning, esp. use of social media
  • curios like the prominence of wrestlers and singers among candidates
  • campaign finance
  • impact of voting system on campaigns/outcomes
  • involvement of volunteers, role of party membership
  • role of the media
  • signs of patterns in policies, or ideologies in campaigns
  • attitudes toward neighbours, international relations
  • and so on.


If you are a regular reader, you know that we often publish posts written by guest authors. These are always marked by “Guest Post” in the title of the post and they always include an “About the Author” paragraph at the end of the post.

Our posts have generally been around 800 words or so, but there is no hard minimum or maximum. When posts get too long, I often suggest that they are broken up into multiple posts instead.

As a general rule, the more specific a post, the better as more specific aspects are more interesting to our readers. Assume that almost all readers are roughly aware of contemporary developments in Mongolia, it is a semi-specialist audience in our mind. That is a bit less true during elections, as some people who might usually not follow political developments closely, especially from abroad, might be more interested, but even then, posts do not have to start with basic explanations. No, “Mongolia is a scrappy democracy landlocked between two giants, Russia and China”.

We like

  • structure, i.e. subheadings, etc.
  • images, but we generally include them via embedding social media posts (esp. Twitter and Instagram) as we don’t have to have a giant filing system for images within WordPress
  • quotes, whether by embedding social media posts or otherwise
  • Mongolian. Feel free to include specific terms or even statements in original Mongolian (Cyrillic rather than romanized) and offer translations in parentheses
  • authors who regularly read our posts as they will have a good sense of what we like

Don’t Be Shy

If you have an idea for writing, let us know!

If you’re interested in writing, but you feel like you’re “just a regular Mongolian”, “just an undergraduate students”, or “just a volunteer election observer”, delete “just” from all those thoughts. While you may not provide a data-driven sophisticated academic analysis, your perspective may well be of great interest to many readers.

If you’re worried about writing in English, we can help. We won’t re-write entire posts, but we can certainly help polish.

If you’re worried about whether an idea is appropriate for the blog or not, don’t worry, ask! We’ll let you know! Obviously, you will have to follow Mongolian law (as unclear as it can be on campaign analyses, etc.) and we have generally not posted anonymous writing in the past.

Aspiring Journalists and Social Scientists, Especially

Journalists and social scientists, in particular, are the people we all look to for political analyses. If you are starting out as a journalist, or perhaps mostly active in Mongolian, but can write in English, or if you’re a senior undergraduate or graduate student maybe thinking about a thesis topic, we would especially welcome posts from you. Writing is a craft and requires practice, so if you have any ambition to write in English, we hope that a blog post might be useful practice for you, and inform all of us.

For an initial question/idea, please get in touch with julian.dierkes|at|ubc.ca

Posted in Author, City Planning, Democracy, eDemocracy, Elections, Foreign Policy, Ikh Khural 2020, Media and Press, Party Politics, Policy, Policy, Politics, Populism, Public Policy | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Dragged into a Power Struggle: Mongolia caught between the Dalai Lama and Beijing

By Manlai N

On January 28th 2020, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India has announced that the long-awaited Tibetan Policy and Support Act was passed in the US House of Representatives. The bill was sponsored by Senator James McGovern and it is the most comprehensive policy bill on Tibet since the Tibet Policy Act of 2002. The bill has ensured that any involvement from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhism will be a violation of human rights and religious freedom, ruling out Chinese claims over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The selection processes surrounding Dalai Lama is a highly politicized matter involving not only Beijing and the CTA but also other major actors like India and the US who all have a stake in the matter to varying degrees. Beijing and Dharamsala each claim authority over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. As the current Dalai Lama approaches his 85th birthday, the dispute is spilling over to third party-actors like Mongolia with its special ties to Tibetan Buddhism. While issues like these often used as a bargaining chip among great powers, specifically today in the midst of US vs. China standoff, more immediate impact often falls on weaker stakeholders like Mongolia who has more to lose than to gain.

Counter Claims

The main rationale behind Beijing’s claim to select the Dalai Lama lies in the selection system known as the “Golden Urn”, a process introduced during Qing dynasty. As a successor to the Qing, both, ROC (Taiwan) and the PRC have adopted the Golden Urn procedure.

The Golden Urn was first used in 1758 to appoint the third Jebtsundamba Khutukutu, the highest-ranking lama among Mongols. His predecessor, who sympathized with an anti-Qing rebellion, was put to death in 1756, and the Manchu emperor decreed that all subsequent reincarnations should be born in Tibet, not in Mongolia.

From 1792 on, all the highest lamas of both Tibet and Mongolia, including Dalai and Panchen lamas, were selected through the Golden Urn. In 1926, with the birth of the socialist Mongolian People’s Republic, the government declared that the Jebtsundamba institution had ended. During this time, the ninth Jebtsundamba was “found” by the Dalai Lama in Tibet in 1933. His identity was kept secret over decades. Only when the communist bloc fell apart in the 1990s and Mongolia brought back religious freedom, did the current Dalai Lama reveal his name.

The Golden Urn was legalized in the PRC Reincarnation Law in 2007 and since then it was used only once to select the second-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism – Panchen Lama, when the Dalai Lama-promoted Panchen suddenly disappeared at the hands of CCP.

Mongolia’s Part in the Process

For the past few years, the battle over legitimacy between China and the CTA has been stuck in deadlock. Recently, however, the dispute is spilling beyond to third-party actors who can play role of a tiebreaker between the two parties. For both CTA and Beijing having support of the third party actors means an important acquisition strengthening their cause going forward. Similar to the another politicized case of Karmapa – one of the historically high ranking lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia’s involvement in the matter has further fragmented already broken religious circles forming various religious and political interest groups.

With its historic role in reincarnation politics, Mongolia was dragged into this geopolitical chess game when the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in 2016 to reincarnate the tenth patriarch of Mongolian Buddhism. For Beijing, however, the Jebtsundamba institution had been dead since 1926. By “reinvoking” reincarnations himself, the Dalai Lama effectively undermined the Golden Urn and with it, Beijing’s claim to legitimacy over the reincarnation process.

This instigated full-scale Chinese activity in Mongolia through all channels, from statements, sanctions and border closures to long-term campaigns aimed at the Mongolian public. This included “proper” portrayal of Tibet for Mongolian worshippers by putting on at least one Tibet-related event in a year. The homepage of the Chinese embassy in Mongolia now has a permanent section of Tibet-related materials on “Chinese Tibet in the eyes of Mongolia”. These were the results of the works of several influential Mongolian reporters, researchers and other personalities who travelled under the embassy organized trip to Tibet. Upon return, they were tasked to produce various Tibet-themed contents to promote the development and progress in Tibet under PRC. In addition to circulation of various media contents across Mongolian media, a photo exhibition was the final piece of the last year’s Tibet program.


While campaigns such as these are generally considered to be legitimate channels of influencing in the capacity of public diplomacy, China has been accused many times of overstepping the mark. The “Dorje Shugden” controversy is one such example. Starting from 1976 this controversy split the Dalai Lama’s followers and the followers of a Tibetan deity called Dorje Shugden. The dispute revolves around the correct path for Yellow Hat Buddhism (Gelug sect) – the current dominant sect which Dalai and Panchen lamas all belong to. The Shugden followers insist upon an aggressive purge on other sects while Dalai Lama kept more progressive stance calling for non-sectarian cooperation among all the other branches of Tibetan Buddhism.

The most prominent figure in the International Shugden Community in Mongolia is Zava Damdin, the reincarnation of one of the high-ranking Mongolian lamas. He is a controversial figure with his lavish lifestyle and luxury store in the central Ulaanbaatar, openly opposes Dalai Lama, declaring himself – a real Mongolian lama, calling for Mongolian Buddhism’s break away from Dalai Lama’s institution. There are rumours that supporters of the main monastery in Mongolia – Gandan Tegchlen Khiid have distrust with Zava Damdin and his Shugden followers with occasional Shugden rituals in Amarbayasgalant khiid  as a front for Chinese politico-business interests that pose a threat to Mongolian sovereignty.

While these are all alleged rumours put against China with United Front Work Department in the lead under Central Committee of CCP, cultivating ties with Dalai Lama-unfriendly monasteries, exploiting and fostering sectarianism and religious nationalism seems to be consistent with tactics deployed in countries with Shugden controversy.

If these allegations are proven to be true, for China in the midst of global discussions around 5G, BRI and the influencing campaigns in the post-COVID-19 world, its meddling, intended or not, in the internal affairs of its immediate neighbours, will have negative implications not only for a target country but to China itself. With ongoing problems in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, China risks not only causing instability in the region but also losing its hard-earned soft power it may have gained in the recent years. As with the discussion around Chinese influencing, Chinese campaigns in Mongolia are the prime examples of the most recent, up-to-date technique deployed from Beijing through all channels which rest of the world with its complex relations with China should be aware of.

About Manlai Nyamdorj

Manlai Nyamdorj holds an M.A in Contemporary East Asian studies from the University of Duisburg-Essen. He wrote his master thesis on China’s soft power potentials and limitations from its societal resources. He can be found all across social media @mchonos

Posted in Buddhism, China, Dalai Lama, History, Manlai Nyamdorj, Religion, Social Issues, Society and Culture, Tibet | Leave a comment

Historical Memories: Contemporary Perspectives on Choibalsan

By Julian Dierkes, Kenny Linden and Marissa Smith

In a series of tweets Kenny Linden pointed to a puzzle that many of us who regularly interact with contemporary Mongolia, namely what would be termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung in German (coming to terms with the past).

I basically agreed with Kenny, sharing the observation about a continuing commemoration of Choibalsan in the face of knowledge about murders that were committed his time in government leadership.

Mogi then also chimed in.

This exchange promoted more discussion between Kenny and I about how important a dissertation topic this could be.

Dissertation Topics Ideas

Despite all the work that has been done, especially by Christopher Kaplonski (especially his two books, Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia: the Memory of Heroes (2004) and The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, (2014)) and by Sergey Radchenko ( “Choibalsan’s Great Mongolia DreamInner Asia 11, no. 2 (2009): 231–58) have done , it seems like there is a lot of room left for more research.

The biggest question that we’re asking ourselves is: how come that individuals like Kh Choibalsan are still celebrated to some extent in contemporary Mongolia when his responsibility for some heinous crimes against fellow Mongolians is undisputed?

Of course, there are many other individuals who continue to be celebrated. Revolutionary leader D Sukhbaatar remains as the name patron for the square in front of Government House (despite silly efforts to rename this Chinggis Sq), for the central district of Ulaanbaatar, for an Aimag,  etc. I have seen portraits of Yu Tsedenbal and other state socialist leaders in offices and museums around the country. But there is arguably some difference between these individuals and Choibalsan in terms of their direct implication in the murder of Mongolians.

This memory is especially interesting given the criticism, albeit muted thanks to Tsedenbal, of Choibalsan and his activities during the de-Stalinization period from 1956 to 1964. Choibalsan remains the namesake the capital in Dornod aimag, formerly Choibalsan until renamed during the period of de-Stalinization in 1963, where he was born. Furthermore, statue of Choibalsan graces the front of the National University of Mongolia. A common refrain suggests that Choibalsan had no choice but to oversee the execution of 40,000 people, despite the counterexamples of Genden and Amar, who resisted the Stalinist era purges, which ultimately led to their deaths. Genden’s house was turned into a museum of political persecution, though this historical house was removed in the recent destruction of historical buildings in Ulaanbaatar.

So, is this kind of historical commemoration a true blind spot in contemporary Mongolia? Could you document attempts at talking about historical figures like Choibalsan in a more differentiated manner, i.e. acknowledging whatever role he might have played in preserving Mongolia’s independence while also clearly pointing to the massacres carried out under his regime? Who is raising questions around historical responsibility? What about Buddhist officialdom given the victimization of lamas in particular? In what fora are questions raised? Who reacts to such questions? What role are academics and historian in particular playing in this? What are generational elements in knowledge of historical crimes? How does the contemporary memory of Choibalsan compare to current rehabilitation efforts of Stalin or Mao?

Marissa Smith adds that there is overlap and some degree of conflation between memories of Tsedenbal and Choibalsan, especially in recent years.

Tsedenbal has also both been “rehabilitated,” and been controversial in recent years, with his statue appearing in front of the Drama Theatre — directly across from the statue of B. Richen, where Stalin’s statue once stood. Members of the MPP have publicly memorialized him there. In 2016, amid still roiling controversies over the privatization(?)/nationalization(?) of the 49% Russian ownership of the Erdenet Mining Corporation, the EMC was officially named for Tsedenbal by act of the Ikh Khural. In a recent (2012) biopic about Choibalsan and contemporaries, Долоон Бурхан Харвадаггүй, tropes associated with Tsedenbal come into play. Specifically, in one scene Choibalsan has a romance with a blond Russian woman while studying in the USSR, though unlike Tsedenbal, he ends the relationship before returning to Mongolia. The legacy of Tsedenbal and his Russian wife Filatova is also multivalent, however — as demonstrated every year around Children’s Day, when Mongolian social media is filled with tributes to Filatova, who is credited with establishing a children’s camp and a number of other cultural institutions in Mongolia.

It is the same controversy that is at stake in the case of both Choibalsan and Tsedenbal’s memories — how effectively did each pursue and secure the interests of Mongolia in its relationship with the Soviet Union? An essential text to read and engage with in researching this matter would be U Bulag‘s ethnography of early 1990s Mongolia, which deals extensively with controversy around Tsedenbal and Filatova’s legacy in the context of immediate post-socialist reframing of Mongolian national identity. Also, in the 2000s, Yuki Konagaya and I Lkhagvasuren conducted extended interviews with a number of figures close to Tsedenbal, including his own brother, Yu Ayush, and Ts Lookhuuz, who was famously purged (imprisoned and exiled) by Tsedenbal in the 1970s. (These are available in Mongolian also on the online repository of Senri Ethnological Reports). Additionally, Tsedenbal is a figure of interest in Russia, and Mongolians are also part of these conversations — the two volumes of works by Leonid Shinkarev published in the mid-2000s in Mongolian as well as in Russian would also be of interest here.

There would be many different disciplinary perspectives to bring to bear on these questions from history, or anthropology to cultural and media studies, political science and sociology. While Mongolian language skills would be a requirement and some supervision by academics who have specialized knowledge of Mongolia(n history) would be important, related questions arise in many post-state socialist societies.

We certainly look forward to reading the results of such research in the future!

About Kenneth Linden

Kenneth Linden is a Doctoral Candidate at Indiana University. His research is on the environmental and animal history of Mongolia, and his dissertation focuses on the socialist era collectivization campaign.
His Twitter is @Kenny_Linden and his website is https://www.kennethelinden.com/

Posted in Dissertation Ideas, History, Kenneth Linden, Research on Mongolia, Social Issues | Tagged | Leave a comment

Confirmed Parties Participating in June 2020 Election

By Julian Dierkes

The process of submitting campaign platforms, having those audited, amended, and finally approved by the General Election Committee was concluded on May 12.

15 parties and 4 coalitions have thus been confirmed to be participating in the election.



Posted in Civil Will Green Party, Democratic Party, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics | Leave a comment

Regionalization, Internationalisms, and Mongolia’s Almost Century-Old Mining Sector

By Marissa J. Smith

In English-language scholarship, Mongolia’s political-economic system has often been characterized as democratic and market-driven. Though not untrue, this characterization casts Mongolia as a unified entity, which redirects attention from how Mongolia is also regionalized, with an economy, political system, and broader society consisting of distinct networks. This may sound like a level of detail only relevant to those interested in hyper-local kinds of particularity. However, in fact recognizing Mongolian regionalization is also important for understanding Mongolia’s international roles, as well as the workings of its national government and economy, which as we ramp up for the next parliamentary elections, we would do well to remember are very complex.

My recently published (and open-access!) article describes this phenomenon as it relates to distinct parts and aspects of the Mongolian mining sector. While the mining sector of Mongolia, like the Mongolian nation-state itself, has often been discussed as a unified entity, privileging this perspective hampers understanding of mining in Mongolia and the Mongolian economy and politics at large.

As I discovered during my many months of anthropological fieldwork living around and working in the Erdenet Mining Corporation (“GOK”), established in the 1970s, Mongolians associated with the mining enterprise balance, on the one hand, a strong national identity as Mongolians producing wealth for the nation-state, with, on the other hand, robust ties to specific ethnic groups and border regions situated all along the over 8000 kilometer-long border (one of the longest in the world). I learned that, in fact, many working at the Erdenet mine are members of a number of ethnicities based in western Mongolia (Kazakh, Oold, Uriankhai, Zakhchin, Durvud, Darkhad, and Khalkha from Govi-Altai province) as well as eastern Mongolia (Buryat). Many of these ethnicities are based not only across the territory of Mongolia, but across international borders that have shifted repeatedly over the course of the last few centuries as processes of political and economic modernization were implemented and unfolded.

This is true not only of Erdenet, but also other socialist-era mines such as Nalaikh and Mardai, and these long and geographically widely dispersed legacies effect the development of the Mongolian mining sector today, including how major mining projects with new post-Soviet international partners are planned, developed, and operated.

This article is a result of my participation in a workshop at the University of Heidelberg last year, organized by Ivan Sablin and the project “ENTPAR: Entangled Parliamentarisms: Constitutional Practices in Russia, Ukraine, China and Mongolia, 1905–2005,” sponsored by the European Research Council (ERC). Sablin has developed the concept of “imperial entanglement” in his work, tracing how the historical interactions of Tsarist, Qing, Japanese, Soviet, American, and other major powers in the region has had lasting effects not only on how international borders have been drawn and systems of governance legislated, but also on how these have often been crossed and remade in continual processes that are not immediately apparent without the study of primary documents and on-the-ground research.

In the case of Mongolia’s international mining economy, international companies, institutions, processes based in the West like those discussed in Jennifer Lander’s new book are important players to understand. At the same time, it is also crucial to recognize the role of institutions that have had longer standing in Mongolia and the region. Erdenet and the Soviet, Tsarist, and Qing-established institutions with which it is entangled also exert powerful influences on Mongolian, Northeast Asian, and global economies and political systems.

Marissa J Smith. “Power of the People’s Parties and a post-Soviet Parliament: Regional infrastructural, economic, and ethnic networks of power in contemporary Mongolia.” Special Issue: Parliamentary Formations and Diversities in (Post-)Imperial Eurasia, ed. Ivan Sablin. Journal of Eurasian Studies, 11(1-2): 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1879366520916743

Posted in Economics, Erdenet, Ethnic Groups, Geography, History, Mining, Population, Publications, Research on Mongolia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Development Challenge of Technical and Vocational Education and Training in Mongolia

By Naranzul B

Changes in Mongolia’s political and economic systems have exacerbated income and social inequality. This, in turn, has excluded a large percentage of the population from benefiting from economic growth. One of the ways out of this situation, or to reduce poverty, eliminate inequality, and contribute to economic growth, is skills development. Skills development prevents social exclusion and contributes to the development of human capital development.

Policy Issue

The growth path of Mongolia aspiring to go beyond a resources-driven middle-income trap and strengthen advanced skills and education systems in order to move up global value chains and it requires that the manufacturing base move from a low-technology, low-skills model to a higher-technology, higher-skills model. According to the ADB report on “Role of TVET in Skills Development” in 2015, TVET emerged as formal postsecondary educational institutions during the 1960s in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Thailand, the UK, and the US. As a result, the mandates of TVET lead to expanding the stock of human capital and thereby facilitated economic advance. The key to transitioning to greater value-added processing in the manufacturing sector is shifting the composition of the national skillset toward one in which higher-skills predominate. However, the vocational education and training sector in Mongolia does not have the quantitative or qualitative capacity to meet the industry’s and society’s current and future demands for vocationally-oriented training for skilled workers. Mongolia also suffers from youth underemployment especially among less-educated populations, and it has the potential to create significant social unrest and perpetuate poverty.

Briefly about the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training)

The negative results of insufficient vocational training are that Mongolian employees are not able to participate sufficiently in creating value in the many important sector such as industrial, construction, mineral resource, and service sector due to their lack of expertise.

Only around 40% of the population are employed in the formal sector of the economy and around 30% of the population have to live on an income below the poverty line.

While the need for skilled specialists is met by recruiting staff from abroad, many young Mongolians are working as unskilled labourers in developed Asian economies (especially South Korea). The lack of skilled workers in Mongolia has recently led to a substantial increase in salaries for well-trained workers and to a loss in added value in the Mongolian economy.

The first Vocational Education and Training Center was opened in 1921 and the number of institutions grew from 46 to 60 in 1960- 1990, however, since 1990 the sector has down and institution numbers decreased to 31 due to the social and economic transformation. However, due to recent government attention to the sector’s development, as of 2015, TVET increased to 81 (49 state, 32 private and some colleges specialize in particular fields such as art and design, catering, technology and engineering), 4520 teachers and employees, and offer 2-3-year programs leading to an associate’s degree in 193 a broad range of vocational areas with an average of about 20,000 professional workers graduates per year. In recent years, enrollments and graduates’ employment have been increasing due to the reputation of vocational education growing. For example, the employment rate for graduates in 2015 has increased from 41.5 to 62.4% compared to 2009. As of 2015-2016, the majority of TVET students (82.9%) are vocational education and 15.6% are studying technical education.

Also, the Government of Mongolia developed a Master Plan to Develop Education of Mongolia in 2016-2021 and Vision 2050 a policy document that has the potential to reform the vocational education and training sector.

Not only to mention above policy documents, but the government has also made a commitment to improving the relevance and quality of vocational training that is available and to creating the necessary conditions to achieve this. With this in mind, the vocational training law has been repeatedly reformed in recent years, and the proportion of practical training in vocational colleges has been increased to over 50%. According to the law, quotas on the number of skilled Mongolians that companies must employ (usually 90%) were also introduced to restrict recruitment of foreign workers and encourage industry to invest in training Mongolian specialists. National and international companies are also increasingly providing in-company training to Mongolian workers in limited numbers.

Meanwhile, government attention to the sector, some international organizations and donor countries have also been involved in reforming the TVET system in Mongolia. For example: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Swiss Development Agency (SDC) co-financed the establishment of Cooperative Vocational Training in the Mineral Resource Sector at Umnugobi Polytechnic College in South Gobi.  The project was implemented between 2013 – 2019.

Furthermore, the GIZ, DFAT and  Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) are co-financing a project to support the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection in the sustainable development of 7 TVET Capacity Development Centres (CDCs) and related framework in all regions throughout Mongolia. The project will be implemented between 2019-2022.

Problems in the TVET Sector and Their Causes

Despite the above-mentioned developments, Mongolia’s vocational education system has not evolved to serve the demands of a modern, private-sector-led economy and does not have sufficient financial, human resources or educational base to practice. Essential partnerships between the government and business to ensure that students receive high quality, demand-driven training are largely absent, and credentialing systems are substandard. As a result, Mongolia tends to import skilled labour from other countries, and it exaggerates high rates of unemployment and poverty.

TVET graduates’ skills are highly dependent on the program, teacher’s skills, training environment, and practice. In order to meet the needs of employers, to start small and medium-sized enterprises, to make more innovations, and the ability to replace foreign workers we need to advance TVET colleges and provide high-level (or world standard) trainings to students. Mongolian TVET colleges are not only expected to teach skills relevant to the global perspectives, and equipped with most up to date curriculum and training equipment but also to facilitate learning in countries and cultural contexts outside the home country.

In addition, Mongolia needs to diversify its economy to facilitate stronger, more sustainable economic and employment growth and concurrently, equip its workforce with a variety of advanced skill sets that meet employer needs and competitive in the region.

About Naranzul

Ms. Naranzul Bayasgalan is an advisor at the Zorig Foundation. From 2013 to 2017 she served as a Second Secretary at the Embassy of Mongolia to India and is responsible for Commercial Affairs. Prior to joining the diplomatic service, she was a Green Development Policy Advisor to the Minister of Environment and Green Development, and a Community Relations Manager at the Petro Matad Limited Company. Ms. Bayasgalan also worked as an Executive Director of the Zorig Foundation, whose main mission is to advance the formation of a democratic society and support political reforms in Mongolia. She has also served as a senior staff assistant to a Member of the Parliament of Mongolia. Ms. Bayasgalan holds an MA in Diplomacy, Law, and Business from the Jindal Global University in India (2017), an MA in Asia Pacific Policy Studies from the University of British Columbia in Canada (2010), and an MS and BA in Structural Engineering from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (2000).


Posted in Education, Employment, Naranzul Bayasgalan, Policy, Vocational | Leave a comment

Guest Post: A BIT of Project Finance Arbitrage in Mongolia

By Kinnari Bhatt

As Jennifer Lander observed last week, RIO is getting out the big guns.

My new book – Concessionaires, Financiers and Communities: Implementing Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Land in Transnational Development Projects, shows how investors like RIO use highly technical contractual terms to choose from different legal structures, systems, standardised debt and project documentation, insurances and layers of expensive security arrangements to create development project legal structures that protect investor rights over all others. The use of these structures is especially pertinent for developing countries and the international project financing of the Oyu Tolgoi mine is no exception. This is because they help to shield investors from the number of variables that can impact on financial return: taxation, political, legal changes, environmental and social risk, for instance. Investors will argue that any government seeking to increase regulation and change investment laws and policies will stymie FDI (Bhatt, 2013) and amount to ‘resource nationalism’.

In this context, the easy enforcement of contractual promises becomes a major concern.  In developing economies arbitration is deemed better than going to court because of its perceived efficiency, privacy and binding nature but also because of the anticipated ability of arbitrators (rather than judges) to understand the web of interrelated commercial and financial contracts. When disputes arise, arbitrators will, it is presumed, be better equipped to preserve the transactional unity of and ongoing relationships within a complex, mutliparty, contractual transaction that can last decades.

Of course, views over the necessity of these structures will differ. My aim is not to debate the morality of these mechanisms but to show their wider context and importance to the political economy of the project.

Living in an uncertain world

The risk landscape for investors has rarely been as challenging : the US- China trade war, Brexit, increasing recognition of dodgy deals that harm the environment, society and rights to development, international pressure around tax avoidance and now, a pandemic.

The Oyu Tolgoi mine provides, frankly, textbook illustrations of this landscape. The company and its project financiers came under fire for its resettlement practices, it has already reported a slowdown in copper concentrate shipments to China as a result of the coronavirus (no doubt it will soon be serving force majeure notices on its numerous contractual counterparts, as China has already done), and it has been persistently questioned around its taxation practices. These include its use of Dutch, Luxembourgish and BVI tax havens and clauses that stabilise the taxation regime at a specific moment in time -in this case, 2009: the date the Investment Agreement (IA) was signed.

RIO’s counter argument has consistently been that its arrangements are reasonable, balanced and legal.  Yet, taxation disputes have a habit of rumbling on. To resolve its dispute with the Mongolian Tax Authority that it owes around USD 155 million to the public purse, RIO has served Mongolia with a notice of arbitration under a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) – treaties between two countries that set up ‘rules of the road’ for foreign investment in each other’s countries.

What might the arbitration look like?

Answering this is, of course, a matter of speculation, but I make a few observations.

International Arbitration and Project Finance Contracts

RIO will benefit from the protection offered by the Mongolia Canada BIT which provides RIO with investment rights and protections protected under public international law. The treaty permits dispute settlement using international arbitration mechanisms, in this case UNCITRAL arbitration rules, and provides other protections such as freedom from indirect expropriation without compensation.

Peeling the onion

International economic law scholars tend to focus on treaty mechanisms, which whilst important, do not illustrate the full legal context and watertight quality of the negotiated deal. In the natural resources field, BIT protections are routinely supplemented through the types of contractual arrangements discussed in my book, like the specific protections within the IA. These arrangements are crucial as they move from the generic treaty provisions into project specific duties and obligations that give greater comfort to an investor. Having worked in practice, I have never come across an emerging market extractive project financing that relies solely on BITs. To do so would leave to much unsaid.

On the disputed tax liability RIO could argue the government’s tax claim amounts to an indirect expropriation. Rio’s lawyers can build their case on similar tax based claims but also the specific language of the IA entered into with the government.  It could present its underlying financial instruments to show how the interdependency of the IA with the debt instruments (there will be numerous cross references to other contracts) and RIO’s reliance on the functioning of these structures as contractually stabilised in the IA. An argument could run that any unforeseen tax payments would result in RIO’s inability to pay interest on its debt instruments, construction contractor invoices and ultimately sell copper, jeopardising its investment. Producing realms of confidential contracts that illustrate the highly structured technical legal foundations upon which its investment and property rights have been modelled, would be no issue given the private nature of arbitration.

Hotel Room Justice

Under UNCITRAL rules Mongolia will be able to choose one member of the arbitral tribunal. The problem here is that often, lesser developed countries do not have experienced arbitrators and will have to appoint foreign arbitrators from a relatively small group of people. Often, those arbitrators are male (the diversity gap has been reported), enable a revolving door system and are schooled in Western legal thinking that proritises sanctity of contract promises over all other values. Consequently, developing countries perspectives are not brought to bear on the decision making process.

The arbitration scene has been derided as ‘hotel room justice’, where arbitration hearings take place in private conference rooms of luxury hotels and result in awards requiring poor economies to pay hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars in compensation to multinational companies like RIO. Historically, Mongolia has not fared well in these rooms.

Whilst positive steps are being made to correct this imbalance: the drafting of arbitration rules for business and human rights disputes (albeit voluntary) and fledging technical assistance programmes, these initiatives do not do enough to plug the massive gaps in finance and technical knowledge needed by lesser developed countries to advise on contracts and fight these awards.

Nonetheless. advocacy and knowledge sharing about how these complex and confidential legal structures work can illuminate these issues and potentially result in systemic change towards a fairer international economic system.

About Kinnari Bhatt

Dr Kinnari Bhatt is a post-doctoral researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam where she researches on the legal and political economy aspects of private and public-private financing for natural resource use, infrastructure and climate/conservation projects. Her book Concessionaires, Financiers and Communities: Implementing Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Land in Transnational Development Projects (2020) was recently published with Cambridge University Press. Kinnari worked as a project finance lawyer with leading global law firms White and Case and Milbank, Tweed Hadley and McCloy in London and Asia and acted as a legal adviser to the Ministry of Mineral Resources in Sierra Leone. She advises NGOs on issues of equitable natural resource management and has taught courses on legal aspects of international finance and project finance at the University of East Anglia and University College London.

Posted in Canada, Foreign Investment, International Agreements, Kinnari Bhatt, Law, Mining, Mining Governance, Mongolia and ..., Oyu Tolgoi, Oyu Tolgoi, Research on Mongolia, Taxes | Leave a comment

Election 2020 – Updates

By Mendee J

Parties and Coalitions Submitted Platforms for Auditing

On March 25, the National Audit Office of Mongolia acknowledged the receipt of the election campaign platforms from 15 political parties and 4 coalitions. Parties and coalitions will have five days for revising and resubmitting the platforms if the National Audit Office finds the campaign platforms (1) violate the law on the parliamentary elections, (2) contradict with the national developmental concept, and (3) exceed the limits of the law on the financial stability. Then, by April 25, the National Audit Office will submit its auditing reviews to the General Election Commission.

Divided Views on the Election Postponement

On March 25, President Battulga made a public appeal to postpone the parliamentary elections. The key rationale behind the proposal is to re-allocate the election funds to overcome the inevitable economic crisis due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Except the Mongolian Green Party, all other parties appear to be not supportive of the presidential appeal. A two days later, Prime Minister Khurelsukh (MPP Chairman) rejected the postponement of the elections since the epidemic outbreak has not been reached at the level, which require the postponement of the elections. In fact, under the current law on parliamentary elections, the elections could be postponed only when a state of emergency has been declared. Such power is vested only in the State Ikh Hural.


Posted in Elections, Ikh Khural 2020, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Personal Experience of National Quarantine during COVID 19

By Zorigtkhuu B

Although there were some strict measures by the government to combat the deadly virus in Mongolia, it had been so nice to come back to my home country after a few years of being away. The capital city has changed a lot with new, tall and fancy buildings and business facilities. Surprisingly, there were not many traffic jams due to kindergarten and school quarantine. The most important thing I noticed was that the air quality has improved significantly, and people appreciate the government’s efforts towards air pollution.

In terms of the quarantine, it was clear that people were following the government and health officials’ instructions and guidelines very well. They did not seem annoyed or scared, instead, they were encouraging each other to wear facial masks, wash hands and not to spit. I had a sense of pride in how our people and government are working together to overcome this challenging period.

Measures Taken

Mongolia has a little less than 5,000 kilometers of border with China. Therefore, Mongolia is considered one of the highest risk countries that Coronavirus outbreak could cause significant problems. However, the government of Mongolia has been taking the risk of an epidemic very seriously from the start of the outbreak in China and has been implementing strict measures including borders closure with China, no travelers from China and checking the body-temperature of all travelers. In addition, the State Emergency Commission decided on the immediate closure of all kindergarten, schools, colleges and universities, and called off all public gatherings, conferences, entertainment events country-wide from January 27th to April 30.

Some media reports indicate that the situation became worse during the Chinese New Year, one of China’s most important holidays when millions and millions of people visit their families and relatives.  If Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of novel coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95 %. As a lesson, the government of Mongolia restricted its citizens in celebrating the Lunar New Year which is one of the biggest holidays in Mongolia. Fear and travel restrictions made citizens unable to travel in and out of the major cities and provinces. According to local media, most of the people appreciated the decision no matter how important the Lunar New Year is. Health officials also claim that the regular cold and flu rate was down 84% compared to last year due to the school and kindergarten closure.

The World Health Organization (WHO) commended the government’s precautions, efforts and measures to prevent its citizens. Based on my observation, between mid Feb until mid March in Mongolia, people were very responsible, avoiding shaking hands with each other, face-to-face interactions and wearing facial masks to protect themselves. Also, some companies allowed their employees to work remotely from home. All businesses and public service facilities require customers to wear masks, and hand-sanitizer was available everywhere in these facilities. Disinfection and sanitization works have been done sufficiently in public places and streets. In other countries, masks are not recommended unless the person has already an infection. Wearing a mask increases the chances of the person to touch his or her face. It increases possibility of catching the virus. However, in Mongolia, masks are highly recommended by health officials to date. The test results of all first contacts of the French citizen who carried the virus into Mongolia were negative. Even though he disregarded the two-week of self-isolation warning by Mongolian officials, he wore the facial mask all the time in UB, on the train and on the mine site. I believe the facial mask stopped the spread of the virus.

Politics and Coronavirus

2020 is a parliamentary election year, despite COVID-19 and the quarantine, the election will proceed. All parties and individuals are working actively on their platforms and preparing for the election. Given the challenges due to the coronavirus, president Kh. Battulga recently proposed to postpone this year’s election.

He claims that the election’s budget should be used to overcome potential economic crisis and the coronavirus escalation. He is being opposed by some lawyers arguing that his hidden objective is to gain more political power.

However, few MPs agreed that it might be better to postpone the election. In addition to the president’s proposal, some politicians seem they are taking advantage of coronavirus situation to gain public attention and support. For example, S Erdene, the democratic party leader said, “stop importing the coronavirus from abroad. The health of 3 million people is more important than 5 or 10 people who want to return to Mongolia. Instead of bringing back those who might import coronavirus, the government should focus on the health of 3 million citizens”. This message was addressed to his rival party leader, current prime minister (PM) U Khurelsukh. Because the PM is repeatedly expressing his position to bring back all Mongolians who are abroad and wish to come back. Hopefully, the announcement by Erdene was his personal view, not representing the whole democratic party. No matter if it has a political purpose or not, I am personally supporting the activities around bringing back Mongolians who wish to come to their home during the escalation of the novel coronavirus as I witnessed at the Istanbul airport that how hard it would be for travelers who are stuck in counties/airports where the majority of flights have been canceled and unknowing where to go.

(Istanbul Airport on March 19, 2020 fights are canceled and many stranded travelers and fully armed military and police patrolling)

The Power of Mongolian Grass-feed Meat, Vodka and Polluted Air

When the officials announced the test results of the first contacts of the French expat were all negative, people started speculating that Mongolians will not catch the virus. They say, “We have a good immune system because we consume organic meat that has about 800 types of medicinal herbs and good quality vodka ”. Some friends (who believe in science) also were making jokes that the novel virus is nothing compared to the polluted air in UB that we have been breathing for the last 20 years. It made Mongolians able to protect themselves from any kind of respiratory disease including the novel virus.

Ministry of Health, D Sarangerel made an announcement responding to criticisms that the government was spending a lot of money when Mongolians eat organic meat and drink good quality vodka thus would not catch the virus.

However, these kind of discussions ended when the next cases which were identified from  10 Mongolians who were repatriated by government-chartered flights from Istanbul, Korea and Germany. Good news is that these infected individuals are all isolated immediately and being treated very well in the medical facilities. Officials constantly announce that the spread of the coronavirus in Mongolia is under control, infected individuals are in a stable condition, and there is no one additionally infected. As of 26th of March 2020, there are 11 proven cases (10 Mongolians and 1 French) and 2197 individuals are isolated in different locations in Mongolia in addition to two Mongolians identified with coronavirus in Korea.

About the Author

Bat-Erdene ZORIGTKHUU currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He graduated from MUST and is aiming to complete a Master’s degree at Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering of the University of British Columbia. Zorigtkhuu’ research will focus on Mining Local Procurement (Local Content) in Mongolia.

Professional background: Zorigtkhuu worked for the biggest coal mining company (Energy-Resources) in Mongolia and an “International Medical Center (Intermed Hospital)” project that was jointly commissioned by MCS group in Mongolia

Posted in Elections, Health, Law, Media and Press, Politics, Social Issues, Zorigtkhuu Bat-Erdene | Leave a comment

Parties Competing in 2020 Parliamentary Election

By Mendee J and Julian Dierkes

We recently collated information about dates and procedures for the upcoming parliamentary election in June. Julian discussed some of the implications of multi-member majoritarian voting with his colleague Max Cameron in a podcast. Now, let’s turn to an outlook on political parties likely competing.

36 Registered Parties

As of late March, there are 36 parties registered at the Supreme Court of Mongolia. The new law on parliamentary elections requires any of these parties, wishing to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, to submit their election platforms to the National Audit Office before March 25 for the economic/financial feasibility review. So, most assume the election would go ahead as scheduled on June 24 – but, of course, the current coronavirus outbreak could necessitate delay or postponement. However, parties have few options – except to organize their meetings (congress, plenums, workshops) virtually.  This would be a new dimension for all parties – success will depend on IT expertise, infrastructure, and even personal skills – how to use them effectively, efficiently, and, of course, securely.

Usual Suspects – MPP, DP, and MPRP

The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) is the current ruling party, which is in control of 65 out 76 seats of the parliament and running the cabinet (i.e., all ministries and agencies, state-owned enterprises). Since the MPP won in the local elections (i.e., capital city/districts, provinces/soums), the party leadership surely have influence over local party committees and their candidates will be favoured by local authorities. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the MPP has experienced a power struggle between two major factions: one led by the incumbent Prime Minister Khurelsukh U and the other by former speaker Enkhbold M. In the end, the Khurelsukh faction got the upper hand by dominating the party secretariat and key organizational hierarchy as well as leadership posts at the legislature, cabinet, and local governments. Literally, Prime Minister Khurelsukh, as a party chairman, now controls the candidate list; therefore, Enkhbold’s supporters will probably follow his lead. Currently, the MPP has 63 MPs (12 female, 51 male) – two members were removed because of criminal investigations and one more could be sentenced in coming months in connection to the Small Medium Business Fund misappropriation/corruption. The MPP will conduct its online meeting (Governing Board) on March 22-23.  Note: the MPP claims 161,000 members.

The Democratic Party (DP) is a coalition of several opposition parties. After being a majority party in the 2012-2016 parliament, the party lost disastrously in the 2016 election mostly due to the party’s mismanagement of the government and divided/competing leadership. The DP was reduced to 9 seats (1 female, 8 male) in the 2016 parliamentary election. Interestingly, the party’s candidates won in the presidential elections since 2009: Elbegdorj Ts in 2009, 2013 and Battulga Kh in 2017. Because of deficient separation of power, the presidential post provides some power/influence over judiciary, foreign policy, and security apparatus and gives the power to securitize any matters presumed as national security importance thorough the National Security Council, the highest consultative body, which is chaired by the president. At the moment, the DP has lost two popular MPs (i.e., Batzandan and Bold) and appears to be in the middle of a fratricidal power struggle. Unless magic happens, the party has very little time to get organized and put forward a winning strategy.  The DP organized its first online conference (National Policy Committee) on March 14. Note: the DP claims 150,000 members.

The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) is the third party with one seat in parliament. The party was established on January 28, 2011, when the MPP changed its name to disconnect from its communist legacy.  But the name change provided unique opportunity for former president, prime minister, and speaker Enkhbayar N to establish a breakaway party for members and supporters who liked the old name. The MPRP merged with former Prime Minister Enkhsaikhan’s party which won a substantial number of seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections and played a game changer role between the MPP and DP competition in legislature and cabinet. In comparison to other smaller parties, the MPRP has some networks, which might challenge the MPP’s candidates in the countryside.  Earlier this month, the MPRP decided to establish a coalition with Civil Will Green Party (CWGP) and Green Party (GP). The CWGP has been regarded another successful, small party, which used to be led by Oyun S, a well-known politician, who is no longer connected to the party.  Note: the MPRP claims 35,000 members, CWGP 35,000, and Green Party 2,100.

Emerging Actors – The Right Person & The Electorate

The National Labour Party – or known as HUN party was established in November 2011, but failed to secure seats in the last parliamentary elections.  Some obvious factors contributing to this failure were: (1) leadership struggles, (2) limited resources (esp., funds), and (3) lack of popularity and organizational capacity. The party seems like it may have learned its lessons and has worked hard to publicize policy platforms and potential candidates since 2017. On March 20, the HUN party declared the establishment of a coalition with the Mongolian Social Democratic Party (MSDP) and newly established Justice Party (Зүй ёс) for the upcoming election.

The MSDP was one of earlier opposition parties in the 1990s, joined the DP in 2000, and then became a breakaway party from the DP. The Justice Party was established in June 2019. Interestingly, the core leaders and supporters (30-40) have been educated in Japan and joined together to promote key values (e.g., justice, rule of law, public interests, discipline, order, trust) by competing in the parliamentary election. The Justice Party is supported by the Association of Mongolian Alumni from Japan. Note: HUN party claims 1,024 members, MSDP 3,000, and Justice Party 2,000.

The Electorate Movement was established on March 28, 2019 to endorse the “right” candidates for the parliamentary election. The movement was initiated by well-known public figures, for example, former Prime Minister Sodnom D, former Finance Minister Byambajav E, former politician Oyun S, composer Jantsannorov N, Hamba Lama Choijamts D, and columnist Baabar (Bat-Erdene, B).  The 60 members of Electorate were elected on two criteria: public figures without (1) a bad reputation, and (2) without intentions of seeking political posts. The movement will declare their support for the right candidates before the election and concludes an ethical contract with candidates. The movement will not conduct negative campaigning against other parties and candidates and support only one candidate per electoral district. Last month, the Electorate Movement accepted requests of the coalition of HUN and MSDP and agreed to support their candidates. As having well-known figures like cosmonaut Gurragchaa J, former Foreign Minister Gombosuren, and composer Jantsannorov, the movement could definitely have an impact on voting.  Like 2012, the election will open opportunities for third parties especially when voters realize that two major parties are not effective in dealing with corruption.


The famous singer Javkhlan S has been the only independent member in the current parliament and we expect an increased number of independent candidates, but it is hard to speculate how many will be successful. Leaders of small political parties will probably have some chance to getting elected because of the majoritarian electoral system. Former civil society entrepreneur and DP member MP Batzandan J and long-time politician, former DP, MP Bold Lu established Joint Coalition Party of Just Citizens (Шударга иргэдийн нэгдсэн эвсэл нам) – or the party with a long name on September 2019. The Ger District Development Party (Гэр хороолол хөгжлийн нам) could get a seat through strong support from ger districts. The party was established in January 2019 and is believed to have connection to former mayor Bat-Uul E (DP). It is not hard to expect a successful election by the Republican Party Leader, Jargalsaikhan D, known as Buyan Jagaa. However, if any of them get elected, they would probably act as independent members.

In past elections, we have seen a large number of athletes run for political office. There is no reason to expect that not to be the case in the coming election. Likely candidates may be former Sumo star Dagvadorj, and Judo gold medalist Tuvshinbayar, but others may also emerge in the campaigning.  Above all, this may turn out to be the county’s first election which will be forced to use the virtual space from the planning, competing, and, of course, to electronic voting. It is quite timely for the Facebook sets up its mission (Facebook War Room) in Mongolia to make sure the fair competition gets on the Facebook.

Posted in Civil Will Green Party, Democratic Party, Elections, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Coronavirus and Mongolia

By Bulgan B

[Updated on March 16, 2020]

Three more cases of covid-19 registered on March 16, 2020 (UTC +8 Mongolia). They were on the government’s chartered flight from Seoul to UB, and the ministry was aware of the health condition of those individuals. Despite the public discontent of bringing sick people with many others in the same plane, the ministry insisted that every Mongolian has the right to be protected by the Government. The close contacts of those three cases, 111 individuals are quarantined and the test is conducted on 61 individuals which are all negative, and remaining individuals are being tested.

The National Emergency Committee (NEC) also provided updates. The Bayan-Olgii province, which is locked down as a result of 192 citizens coming in through Tsagaan Nuur port. The majority of those were Mongolian students who were studying in Kazakhstan. They are isolated in medical facilities or in their home.  The government is sending chartered flight on March 18, 2020, to Istanbul to bring Mongolian citizens despite the risk of more cases of covid – 19.


[Original post on March 15, 2020]

On March 10, Mongolia registered its first positive test for the novel coronavirus case. Given the geographical attachment and the economic intensity with China, the period that the country stayed without the coronavirus is impressive, to say the least.

The country has taken extensive steps to prevent coronavirus. Following the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, China, Mongolia quickly took measures such as closing daycare and schools since January 27th, restricting and eventually stopping flights, trains and domestic and international travel. The country also celebrated this year’s lunar New Year, the biggest holiday celebration, on the small scale if celebrated at all due to the fear of transmitting the coronavirus to the elders.

Foreign Infection

This first positive case is a French citizen who was on a working visit to Mongolia. Disregarding the two-week self-isolation warning, he traveled and commuted extensively with direct contact with about 120 people and indirect contact with over 500, traveling to Dornogobi province on the public train from Ulaanbaatar. Currently, about 269 tests (National Center for Communicable Diseases of Mongolia’s update on March 15, 2020, see https://news.mn/) were carried out on those with close contacts and all came back negative. The French citizen was harshly criticized for bringing in Covid-19. Many people, including some public figures, expressed discontent, calling his ignorance of the self-isolation warning “a neocolonial attitude” towards so-called developing countries. This discontent was not the only reaction. The French citizen was quickly forgiven, and a lot of people started sending him to get-well letters, notes and a lot of support messages on social media while he is being treated at the National Center for Communicable Diseases.

(letter from a fifth grade student Oyuntsetseg N, in Orkhon province, who wrote to the French citizen that she does not believe that he spread this contagious disease intentionally, and she wishes him to fight with this sickness and get better soonest, and she wishes him and his family a long happy life.)

(A tweet by a Mongolian citizen that says “ours or not, he is a father of two, hope the Frenchman gets better soon, though he is still irresponsible”)


The current accessibility and availability of medical care could be another factor that people are diligent in observing the home-quarantine in addition to their care for their elders. In parallel, the government’s reaction in taking swift action to implement social distancing strategies has been helping the country to stay free of coronavirus. Though the economic impact could not be assessed at great depth and scale, right at this point, many small and even medium-size business owners are reporting that their business is facing difficulties in paying rents and paying salaries.

Another interesting observation is an increase in social cohesion among countries that are impacted by the covid19 pandemic. Although in Mongolia, there is only one active case of coronavirus, the increase in the degree of unity (against common threat) will have an impact on social behavior towards many polarising issues, including corruption.

Political Implications?

An interesting political discourse in relation to coronavirus has emerged surrounding the parliamentary election this year. Whether the government’s swift action secured some sort of confidence in political figures from the public or in the public service (distrust of political parties and public service is reported high). Political campaigns since the democratic revolution in 1990 have been growing more colourful and eventful in recent elections. However, with the outbreak of the pandemic covid19, the campaigns have not been active in the media. Although PR campaigns are overshadowed by current events, the pension loan write-off on December 31, 2019 by the President Battulga and student loan write-off proposal submitted on March 2, 2020 by the Minister of Education, Culture, Science, and Sports would have an influence on voters’ choice.

Currently, the Ministry of Health reported that since January 9, the country isolated and observed 1,328 individuals, and as of today there are 609 people in a medical isolation facility. According to Canada’s assessment, Mongolia falls on the third level, which that the Canadian government is advising to “avoid all non-essential travel”.


Posted in Elections, Health, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolia and ... | Tagged | Leave a comment