Evaluating and Classifying Developments in Mongolia

Jonathan Manthorpe is one of the most prominent voices on contemporary Asia in Vancouver as the long-time international affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun. Today he wrote a story that portrays many of the current developments in a very – and in my mind – unduly negative way: “Miner’s Motherlode Mongolia Faces Instability Ahead of June Election“.

Instability? For sure! Is there anything factually wrong with Mr Manthorpe’s article? No! In fact, I would say that the article is well worth reading, in part because it takes a different – in this case, more negative – view of political developments in Mongolia.

“[S]ince […] 1990, Mongolia’s early successes with creating a vibrant democracy have subsided into bitter factionalism, outrageous corruption and incompetent government.”

What are “bitter”, “outrageous” and “incompetent” doing here? More than factionalism, I would argue that Mongolian democracy has been characterized by patronage politics, that is attempts – often blatant, and more often than not linked to corruption – by politicians to exploit decision-making authority for (financial) gains for themselves, their families/supporters, or regional affiliations. Factionalism? I haven’t seen very much of that. Mongolian members of parliament of both parties certainly have had an independent streak, particularly parliamentarians who have not been members of cabinet and have seen benefits in an appeal to populist sentiments, possibly for electoral gain.

Manthorpe is surely right in linking the recent arrest of former president Enkhbayar to electioneering, certainly in its timing, but “extreme partisan politics”? Are robo-calls “extreme partisan politics”? Would we label them as such?

Some of the rivalry between Enkhbayar and the leadership of the Mongolian People’s Party, including Prime Minister Batbold, is rooted in his perception that the party (then still known as the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) abandoned Enkhbayar during his campaign for re-election in the 2009 presidential election. What Manthope doesn’t mention or – more likely – doesn’t have the space to mention is that Enkhbayar has become more and more of a loose cannon with relatively wild accusations of other politicians, including current PM Batbold, and previous PM Bayar. Some of these accusations have come in the context of the trial of four senior police officers for the deaths of five demonstrators/rioters on July 1 2008, the unrest that Manthorpe mentions in his article as well. The arrest of Enkhbayar has come in the context of a reinvigorated Anti-Corruption Agency and a long-standing investigation of Enkhbayar and his wife for corruption. Calling the split between Enkhbayar and his former party-mates “bitter factionalism” is making this split sound like more of a systemic issue than it really is.

While there have also been some criticisms of PM Batbold within the MPP recently, I do not see these as evidence of the emergence of factions that are organized under a policy-view or a leader within the party. To the contrary, factions that have formed in the past have tended to leave parties to start their own, and the recent changes to the electoral system that have proposed to introduce an element of proportional representation would benefit such separate parties and encourage their formation.

“[Enkhbayar’s] arrest led swiftly to a large demonstration by supporters”

I have been struggling to find out more about these demonstrations over the past week. As far as I can tell from Mongolian press reports and contacts, these are not “large demonstrations”, but seem involve some hundreds of core Enkhbayar supporters. This would confirm my sense that Enkhbayar personally and through the re-formed MPRP has taken on a bit of a fringe existence.

Manthorpe says as much himself in the next paragraph, “Hundreds of people gathered in central Sukhbaatar Square in the capital Ulaanbaatar and mounted a noisy but peaceful demonstration outside the parliament building.” That does not sound like a “large demonstration” to me.

Manthorpe does refer to the July 1 2008 events. I would emphasize that almost all Mongolians were startled by the events four years ago and would argue that they were an aberration, not part of a development toward political violence. In fact, I would emphasize that compared to other post-state socialist countries, not just in Central Asia, but Russia as another example, the apparent rampant corruption in Mongolia has not been linked in any way to political violence or the development of any kind of organized crime, at least I have not heard about any indications of such developments.

Manthorpe believes that “Enkhbayar’s MPRP is set to do well in the June parliamentary elections.” I am not sure that I would agree. The re-formed MPRP will win seats, no doubt, in part because some current MPs look set to defect to the MPRP. Also, there are some attempts for the re-formed MPRP to usurp party structures that “belonged” to the old MPRP. While this will most likely not result in the transfer of any material resources, allegiances may well transfer, particularly with older voters and voters in the country. Though I hesitate to make specific predictions about the election outcome (hopefully, I will get a better sense of likely outcomes when I will be in Mongolia in June), the MPRP will likely reduce the MPP share of votes and possibly take some DP seats as well, but I would be very surprised if these seats amount to a significant portion of the 76 seats in the Ikh Khural. If the MPP loses significantly, of course, the MPRP might emerge as a possible coalition partner.

June’s elections are approaching at a time when Mongolia is facing a host of contradictions stemming from its transition to democracy. There are also the tectonic tremors in its economy as it shifts from a basis in agriculture and semi-nomadic herding on the country’s vast grassland steppes to one based on mining.

Political leaders have wrestled with the horrendous problems of trying to develop mining policy and regulations. They continue to struggle with fashioning a mining industry that benefits the country and its people even as hordes of mining company carpetbaggers from Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada clamour at their doors for concessions.

All fair enough, but “incompetent government”? While I certainly believe that there are areas where Mongolian politicians could be more strategic in developing their economy and ensuring sustainable benefits from such development, I am also very sympathetic to their struggles in managing an almost unimaginably rapid economic development that calls for policy-analysis and policy-making in so many different, but interrelated areas. Would I be able to handle these developments more competently? As a benevolent dictator, perhaps, but maybe not. Within a maturing democracy? Hardly! My personal emphases might be different, but then I might not get elected in Mongolia.

Is there a Canadian link/perspective on all of this? The strongest commercial link has been Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines and the Oyu Tolgoi project that it has been developing. However, Ivanhoe Mines gradual withdrawal (cashing out) from Mongolia is accelerating and within some months that link will practically disappear. There are some other projects under development, perhaps most prominently Prophecy Coal’s proposed power plant, but these are not on the scale of the Oyu Tolgoi project.

As the commercial relationship declines, the Canadian government seems to have taken more and more of an interest in Mongolia starting with the establishment of an embassy there and running through the visit of PM Batbold in Ottawa in September 2010, and repeated discussions of the possibility of further official Canadian visits to Mongolia, though much more likely after the June election.

Substantively, some of the areas that Manthorpe has identified (with a bit too much hyperbole, I would say) are open to Canadian initiatives. Offers should certainly continue to go to the Mongolian government that Canadian officials would be willing to share experiences particularly in resource development and regulation. While these are difficult areas where even long Canadian efforts have hardly produced clear solutions, there is a lot of experience on this available that Mongolian could draw on if they thought this might help them in their own policy analysis and policy making.

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 @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Corruption, Democracy, Elections, Governance, Ikh Khural 2012, Media and Press, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Evaluating and Classifying Developments in Mongolia

  1. Jonathan Manthorpe says:

    I have enormous respect for Julian’s views and am delighted he focussed on this column. It doesn’t look to me as though we are very far apart, especially on the basic facts and implications of the situation. As Julian points out, there is some material I didn’t put in simply because of lack of space — I fancy Julian’s deconstruction is rather longer than my original column. The main disagreement appears to be with the sharpness of some of my adjectives. Well, I can live with that. But I don’t do hyperbole and never have.

    • Hyperbole = “exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech” (Wikipedia).
      The three adjectives in “bitter factionalism, outrageous corruption and incompetent government” are overly sharp in my mind, especially as they appear in a rhetorically prominent spot in the third paragraph and that to me matches the definition of hyperbole.
      Yes, I absolutely do agree with most of Jonathan’s basic assessment and I do treasure the lack of space restrictions in blogging.

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