Presentation Summary: How Stable is Mongolian Democracy?

Mongolia Lecture Series
Institute of Asian Research

FAQ Mongolia: Some Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions on (Mining) Policy

Presentation Summary

How Stable is Mongolian Democracy?

Julian Dierkes

Mongolia’s democratic polity make it not only fascinating for research and especially comparative research, but make it a – sadly – unusual case in its general neighbourhood. For more than 20 years Mongolia has now been nominally democratic and many of the tell-tale indicators of democracy in action are in place: multiple well-established political parties, repeated peaceful changes of government, a free press, significant participation in the political process by the electorate, etc.

Yet, most conversations that I have about Mongolia turn to the question of how long this democracy will last. The main threats to further institutionalization of democracy are generally seen to be: corruption, populism, and resource nationalism. All three threats revolve around the rapidly developing mineral wealth of Mongolia.

What are the prospects for Mongolian democracy then? Below I offer some tentative prognoses or likely developments.

The Next Six Months

Why six months as a time span? Because Mongolia is heading to its next parliamentary election on a four-year electoral cycle in June 2012.

I don’t  expect any major decisions or changes before the election. Some of the decisions that will have to be made before then include specifics of the electoral law which has just been revised.

However, the current coalition government is likely to last up until the election campaign, and even if it were to break up, little would change in terms of decision-making which is paralyzed by the looming election in any case.

No radical steps on Oyu Tolgoi will be taken, though there will be plenty of noise in this regard, especially as we approach the campaign itself. Time and again, as parliamentarians and other politicians have made noises demanding revisions to the structure created by the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement, representatives of the executive branches have stepped in to reaffirm their commitment to the IA. None of the political parties, whether the ruling coalition partners of the MPP and DP, or the opposition of the Civil Will/Green Party and MPRP, have taken an ideologically-rooted coherent stance for or against mining and no parties along these lines are likely to emerge.

Likewise, there will probably be more meandering on the lingering Tavan Tolgoi decision. Overall I suspect this process will last as long as the Oyu Tolgoi negotiations, roughly five years or so, and will include as many twists and turns.

Beyond the Immediate Future

What outcome will the June 2012 election bring? Obviously, any prognosis is highly speculative at this point, but the bottom line might be that independent of the exact party constellations, there is no hint at radical policy change associated with any of the parties, in part because none of the parties have really crafted a coherent position on the impact of the mining boom on the country.

Large parts of the MPP clearly feel threatened by a) the strength of the DP in Ulaanbaatar, and b) the prospect of a resurgent MPRP under frm. president Enkhbayar who has turned himself into the wildcard and loose cannon of Mongolian politics. Even if the Civil Will/Green Party makes gains in the election through proportional representations, they are at best likely to join a coalition and to bring a renewed focus on anti-corruption and some noticeably competent candidates.

All bets are off for the presidential election that would follow in 2013. Pres. Elbegdorj would be eligible for re-election, but the outcome of the parliamentary election will obviously have a significant impact on his chances.

Mongolian Democracy in the Longer Term

In thinking about three roughly distinguishable paths for Mongolian democracy, I would see an approximate continuation of the past 10 years as the most likely path. That is, most political decision and contests will revolve around mining more or less directly. The party landscape will remain roughly as it is now, though patronage politics will continue to dominate over ideological profiles. There will be some flare-ups of populism that will result in  more noise about the ownership of mineral resources and the growing inequality will lead to more or less violent/visible expressions of grievances.

A more pessimistic scenario is also possible where Mongolia would fall into some kind of authoritarianism as it is prevalent in Central Asia. Factors that would contribute to such a scenario would be the emergence of a charismatic, populist leader, an exacerbation of inequalities to the point that it creates revolutionary ferment, or a worsening of corruption and descent into violent confrontations between competing oligarchs and their supporters. International pressures from convulsions in China or Russia may also bring about some such dire scenario.

Sadly, a more optimistic scenario may be the least likely. This would require the emergence of a new generation of political and business leaders who are willing to place the nation’s fate ahead of their own greed. Such an attitude may then lead to sharper contours of political profiles for the parties, a reduction in high-level corruption, a more equitable and sustainable distribution of mining wealth and all the good things that might be associated with such developments.

While this optimistic scenario may be unlikely, it is not entirely out of the question. The human as well as capital/mineral resources available in Mongolia as well as the small population do lead many observers to dream about possible optimistic scenarios. This – again – distinguishes Mongolia from many other countries around the world, where an optimistic scenario seem outside of the realm of the realistically possible without a major reconfiguration of the current situation.

Video Record

1:18’40” – 1:33’05”

About the Presenter

Dr. Julian Dierkes is an associate professor and the associate director of the Institute of Asian Research (IAR) at the University of British Columbia where he coordinates the Program on Inner Asia. In the Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies (MAAPPS) program, Julian has co-supervised graduate projects on mining regulation in Mongolia with colleagues in mining engineering. He has served as an election observer in the 2008 parliamentary and 2009 presidential elections in Mongolia. He writes occasional Asia Pacific Memos about Mongolia and also consults on political risk in Mongolia.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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1 Response to Presentation Summary: How Stable is Mongolian Democracy?

  1. Pingback: Economist: “Booming Mongolia – Mine, all Mine” | Mongolia Today

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