Mongolian President Ts Elbegdorj was narrowly re-elected to a second term in the June 26 presidential election. He is embarking on this second and final term with expectations of personnel continuity and policy stability. He is setting out on this path with a bit of a bang, the announcement of a pardon for former President N Enkhbayar who has been released into civilian hospital care earlier in August 2013.
Enkhbayar’s pardon is not unexpected and a political gamble to remove one of the thorns in Elbegdorj’s side as he embarks on his next four years in office.
Recapping the Enkhbayar Saga
Enkhbayar rose through the then-Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and was elected to the Ikh Khural (parliament) for this first time in 1992. He became the first person to hold all three highest elected offices in the country: prime minister (2000-04), chairman of parliament (2004-05), and president (2005-09).
Despite Enkhbayar’s powerful positions and central role in the party, he is rarely associated with any particular policy initiatives or directions. The most momentous decision for Mongolia that should have come during his watch was the signing of an Investment Agreement covering Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto’s investment in the massive Oyu Togloi gold and copper project. Yet, Enkhbayar was relatively un-inolved in this decision and the Agreement was ultimately only possible after Enkhbayar had lost the 2009 election, during Elbegdorj’s first term in the context of a “grand coalition” of the MPRP and DP under Prime Minister S Bayar.
His power waned during his term as president and he was defeated in his bid for re-election by Elbegdorj in 2009 in part because his own party no longer stood behind him. He became further alienated from his party when then-Prime Minister S Bayar announced Enkhbayar’s defeat to Elbegdorj very quickly after the election. This decision to force Enkhbayar to concede quickly was driven more by a desire for a speedy result following the violent unrest that had come with allegations of irregularities in the 2008 parliamentary election.
Enkhbayar’s alienation from the MPRP intensified when S Batbold became party leader. Batbold asserted his leadership by pushing a name-change for the party which reverted to its pre-1924 name of Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) in 2010.
While this name change was widely supported within the party, Enkhbayar gathered the opposition to the change and formed a splinter party which was ultimately allowed to assume the name of Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, even though the MPP was the organization that continued the existence of the socialist era-MPRP and retained its organization and assets.
As leader of the MPRP, Enkhbayar has taken a significant populist turn through the members of parliament that form the “Justice Coalition” together with the Mongolian National Democratic Party.
Allegations of Corruption
Allegations of corruption followed Enkhbayar throughout his political career. Most of these allegations focused on the business activities of his wife and the privatizations of public companies, but also pointed to the very sudden paying off of Mongolia’s legacy debt to Russia during Enkhbayar’s term as prime minister in 2003 by U.S.-Canadian mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland.
These allegations led to calls for investigations as soon as Enkhabayar’s electoral defeat lifted his immunity. Enkhbayar’s was arrested in April 2012, just as he was preparing for parliamentary elections at the end of June of that year. While some of the allegations were ultimately borne out by his trial and conviction, the timing of his arrest during the election campaign was seen by many as politically motivated and possibly orchestrated by Elbegdorj. This impression was reinforced by a public relations effort with sometimes downright silly blog posts, paid advertisements disguised as articles, and messages of support from foreign officials that seemed to be coordinated internationally by Enkhbayar supporters.
The campaign supporting Enkhbayar intensified when he went on hunger strike and was placed under hospital care during his pre-trial arrest. Despite various legal shenanigans and the international campaign, Enkhbayar was convicted of relatively minor corruption charges in August 2012 and sentenced to seven years in prison which was later reduced to three years.
Enkhbayar’s Pardon and Its Implications
The fact that Elbegdorj has pardoned Enkhbayar has not come as a surprise. It deflects accusations against Elbegdorj and the DP that they are partisan in their pursuit of anti-corruption measures and makes the president look more like a head of state above the political fray.
The implications of this pardon will only become clear in the coming months as the fate of the MPRP under Enhkbayar and his and the party’s role in cabinet and parliament become clearer. Since his arrest, the MPRP has largely been an Enkhbayar-proxy party.
Party representatives may have tried to negotiate with the DP over an Enkhbayar pardon at various moments, including when the MPRP was debating whether to field a presidential candidate or not. In the end, the party did nominate N Udval, so the current pardon does not appear part of a political bargain to prolong the cabinet under current Prime Minister N Altankhuyag. On the other hand, the MPRP members do have a fair bit of leverage as the DP-led cabinet is dependent on them for a majority.
Enkhbayar himself could conceivably be aiming for a return to active politics through a run for parliament in 2016, or, possibly even for the presidential election in 2017 when he would be 59 years old assuming that his health problems are not as severe as they may have appeared at times.
If the MPRP remains in the governing coalition this will present the challenge of how to distinguish itself from other coalition members in 2016. If they decide to leave the coalition, on the other hand, this may doom them to irrelevancy unless Enkhbayar’s visibility remains high.
The party landscape in Mongolia will continue to change in coming years as the Mongolian People’s Party tries to reclaim its dominant position and as the DP has its hands on all levers of power for the coming three years. If Enkhbayar does re-emerge as an active politician, this will have an impact on other DP officials, but probably not on Elbegdorj who has granted him this pardon.