I have been in Ulaanbaatar for about 3 weeks now and from some informal conversations with teachers, past advisors, and friends I have come up with some general, almost anecdotal, observations. While these are not through in depth study or surveys, I have relied on several Mongolian-language news articles in addition to other more casual conversations.
1. The Mongolian People’s Party is in a bit of an identity crisis. The change in name from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (Монгол Ардын Хувсгалт Нам) to the Mongolian Peoples Party (Монгол Ардын Нам) is just one example of how the MPP is increasingly torn between tradition and reform. Just after the official candidates were announced, but before they were required to register in their respective voting districts, PM Batbold wished his party good luck, stressing two things in particular. Firstly, that this is a party with certain traditions and that they would stand by those traditions. Secondly, that despite this strong connection to heritage and tradition, the MPP was also a new party with new ideas and new policies to put forward.
I can’t help but recall the old nickname that the MPP had, back when it was still the MPRP: Ах Нам (The Big-Brother Party). This was the traditional party that led Mongolia for over 60 years, this age and experience made them not only trustworthy but inherently respectable as the elders of the nation. Today’s MPP has to appeal to two very different electorates: the older supporters who will stand by their party based on tradition and perhaps some idealized, nostalgic memory of the old-communist system; and, Mongolia’s younger voters, who are going to look for a fresh political agenda to support their interests. It seems to me that these two groups have interests that are not easy to effectively co-address. Still, the MPP recognizes that it must begin to appeal to the new demographic reality of the country. Another side of this uncomfortable position between tradition and reform is apparent in the creation of a new political party, using the MPP’s old name: The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, originally lead by Enkhbayar, but now focusing on some other, less scandalized politicians in coalition with the Mongolian National Democratic Party (МYАН: Монгол Үндесний Арчилсан Нам). Indeed, the MPRP-MCDP coalition’s slogan, Шударга ес (with possible translations being justice, fairness, and loyalty), challenges the MPP’s claim to tradition.
As a more general note, I will say that in the center of the city the MPP seems to dominate the skyline, with far more campaign posters, billboards, and banners; however, as you leave the center of the city, they are casually overtaken by the DP. One Mongolian friend mentioned that this was because the center of the city has historically been strongly democratic and the periphery more MPP-leaning, so the more materials the weaker the party is in that section of town. This is a casual observation, but useful when trying to get a more general feel of the election.
2. Support for Enkhbayar in Ulaanbaatar is limited, despite disproportionate international concern. I personally have yet to talk to a single Mongolian, who is unhappy with the arrest of N. Enkhbayar. Of course, this is not based on wide surveys and all my friends are definitely DP-leaning. It is, however, imperative that we wait until the results of a fair trail to make the final judgment. Indeed, politicians as rich as Enkhbayar and his family rarely are very clean. However due to an excellently managed and funded PR campaign (Хар PR, depending on who you talk to) Enkhbayar has managed to convince an international audience that his arrest is completely politically motivated and that it is a sign of the crumbling of Mongolian democracy. I argue otherwise. Instead, I say that the ability to pass an Anti-Corruption Law and organize an Anti-Corruption Agency capable of going after the usually untouchable ex-politicians is a sign that Mongolia’s democracy has never been so strong. In this way, I find this issue to be ultimately up to the Mongolian people and am disturbed by the international press and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s support for such an unpopular politician.
3. Ultimately, elections everywhere are about legitimacy. Mongolia’s political legitimacy will be largely based on how the government manages Mongolia’s unprecedented growth and whether everyone will be able to enjoy the benefits of this growth. In reality, any government, whether democracy, or autocracy, or authoritarian must be able to deliver “the goods”. China’s Communist Party’s legitimacy is wrapped up in it ability to develop and lead the country; Putin’s support network is based on a huge increase in the quality of life across Russia and simply being better than his predecessor, Yeltsin.
Yet, democracies have the additional concern of making sure that they can address almost every concern their constituency might have. Keeping this in mind, Mongolian political legitimacy will be based not only on developing the country, but also whether or not the government can manage the growth in a way that benefits as many Mongolian’s as possible. In the city elections, for example, major voter concerns are going to be air quality, the beautification of the city, traffic/infrastructure, and the ger districts. In the national elections, more general concerns will probably dominate the political agenda, with mining policy a likely key factor. A look at the main political slogans also revels some interesting insights. Both main parties are using a slogan that revels that they see their own legitimacy being tied to the quality of life of its population. The Democratic Party’s Хүн шиг амьдаръя, Улс шиг хөгжье (Live like a person, Develop like a country) and the MPP’s Эх орондоо сайхан амьдарцгаая, are very similar. The campaign might come down to which party is seen as more capable of spreading the country’s new found wealth across the populace.
4. This election still has some logistical concerns to overcome and the combination with city elections might prove problematic. The decision to combine the City of Ulaanbaatar elections with the national Ikh Khural elections remains unclear to me at this time. I am not sure exactly how this is suppose to simplify or improve the electoral process at all, indeed, it seems an unnecessary complication. Additionally, I wonder if it doesn’t complicate the campaigning process. For example, the current mayor of UB is quite popular, even with voters that are do not usually support his MPP party. One has to wonder if this might affect swing voters’ decisions on whether to offer more support to MPP outside of the city elections, in a show of support for Munkhbayar. It will be interesting to see how it ultimately plays out. Continuing concerns about voter registration and the disbursement of new ID-cards also complicate the process.