The general view in Ulaanbaatar was that Bat-Erdene was trailing Elbegdorj significantly in voter support in some part because of his lack of political experience, and profile and the fact that he doesn’t “look presidential”. This latter judgement is not about his stature which is quite presidential as you would expect from a former wrestling champion. Rather, this refers to the observation that Bat-Erdene has not been politically very active in parliament and, in particular, does not have any international experience. He also is not terribly charismatic in large public events, though some have mentioned that he connects very well with people in smaller settings.
This was the set-up for the presidential candidates’ Q & A on Monday, June 24 at 21:45h on public broadcaster MNB’s main channel: Elbegdorj was looking not to make a mistake, Bat-Erdene was looking to score big to carry some momentum into Wednesday’s election, and Udval’s performance was probably irrelevant.
In a nutshell
Elbegdorj looked presidential if a bit stiff, but did not make a mistake
Udval was surprisingly engaging and fairly moderate in her statements
Bat-Erdene was awkward
Note that we watched the debate at a highway rest-stop in Jargalkhaan and the electricity went out during the 8th question.
373 questions were submitted to MNB, the public broadcaster which were then condensed. Candidates drew lots as to the order they would start. They then rotated the order in which they addressed questions addressed to them by two moderators. The opening statement was just a minute, answers to questions two minutes long. A beep signaled that the end of the answer period was approaching. Other than some fumbles by Bat-Erdene who jumped out to answer questions before his “shot clock” started ticking, candidates stuck to rules. They did not engage each other directly (at least not until the 8th question when our electricity cut out). The format would thus be more appropriately called a Q&A session rather than a debate as Twitter follower Mukhit pointed out to me.
After the opening statements, the first seven questions focused on the following topics: Values, representing Mongolia abroad, current socio-economic situation, judiciary, military, mining and its impact on the economy, Mongolian traditions, education.
In the answers to these questions there were no surprise announcements, nor did any of the candidates make any radical statements of any kind. Answers were generally very similar, as the platforms were, and differed in style and emphasis but not in substance.
When asked about their values, the candidates highlighted citizens’ halls and democratic participation (Elbegdorj), sovereignty (Bat-Erdene), and justice. [I will return to Elbegdorj’s emphasis on citizens halls in a future post as this appears to have been significant in his campaign in the countryside].
In response to the question on international relations, all three candidates mentioned and emphasized good relations with the two immediate neighbours as well as a continuing focus on the “3rd neighbor” policy.
Udval got the best reaction in the whole debate (from our audience) in her response to the question about the socio-economic situation. She pointed out that more than 30% of Mongolians are poor, so that would probably make her the poor one among the candidates. Somewhat surprisingly, Elbegdorj immediately jumped on electricity as the most important issue for the socio-economic situation. Other answers were fairly bland, as they were on the judiciary which is an obvious area for Elbegdorj to emphasize his past record.
Regarding the military, Bat-Erdene and Udval both mentioned cybersecurity as a new threat for security policy to address.
Udval’s answer on mining was somewhat surprisingly mild in that she did not really embrace any kind of explicit elements of resource nationalism, either as an ideology or in terms of practical policy implications. Elbegdorj emphasized that there needs to be not just a policy on production, but also on mining exploration, while Bat-Erdene mentioned the need for a build-up of processing capacity in addition to mining itself.
The question on Mongolian traditions could have been an easy opportunity for Bat-Erdene, but even on this question he didn’t really deliver. Elbegdorj answered first and discussed the need for Mongolian traditional roots to enable him to serve as an example for the people. Bat-Erdene spoke quite broadly and mentioned odd specifics like UNESCO world heritage designation. Udval dropped a reference to the ancient capital of Kharkhorum.
Elbegdorj clearly looked presidential. He was calm and collected, handled his time well and spoke in a straightforward manner, though he seemed a bit tense at some times.
Surprisingly, as she had come across as fairly wooden to me in reporting on campaign events, Udval was quite engaging and probably worked the camera best of the three by looking at the moderators, but also engaging viewers directly without staring at them through the lens. On the chest of her deel she was wearing a green gem of some kind that occasionally reflected the studio lights for a quick flash. Less impressive compared to the other candidates was that Udval referred to her notes most often while both Bat-Erdene and Elbegdorj spoke freely. One of the Mongolians in our audience commented that she spoke beautifully in terms of her choice of words and phrases. She seemed the most relaxed of the three.
Bat-Erdene did not come across as very presidential. His suit was ill-fitting, he was sweating, and he shifted his eyes from side to side. He also struggled with time-management and had an on-going battle with the studio clock.
Udval won this debate, but it will most likely not make that much of a difference to the outcome other than that she might be taking more votes from Bat-Erdene than anticipated.
Elbegdorj continued to play it safe with an incumbent’s campaign and didn’t fumble any of the questions.
Bat-Erdene did not shine and likely did not improve his chances significantly.
Since the debate came on the last night of the campaign (Tuesday, June 22 is a day off from campaigning before the election on Wednesday) it may have a significant impact on undecided voters. It’s hard to imagine that many of them were swayed by Bat-Erdene’s performance, so if anything the debate reinforced the general expectation that Elbegdorj is heading victory, perhaps even likely without a run-off.
I wouldn’t say Udval won the debate. In general, the whole thing so called “debate” didn’t go well as it should be. The moderators weren’t at ease, etc.
It is always interesting to read an assessment of Mongolian politics from a “Western” perspective, as they add significantly to our knowledge. Therefore, I find this report on the presidential debate intriguing. However, I would question the author’s conclusion that Udval won the debate. Her answers were unnaturally and illogically poetic definitions of the subjects of the questions, whether it is foreign policy or the education system, and did not offer any specific insight as to how she would handle relevant problems. She simply lacked understanding of certain critical policy issues and appeared to simply fill the two minutes with whatever came to her mind. Her word choice was extremely poor and reminiscent of the language of Soviet propaganda. At some points, the sentence she was saying semantically did not make any sense (neither did Bat-Erdene’s for that matter).
I do not belong to any party or support candidates based on their political party or affiliations, but based on form as well as substance of answers I would say Elbegdorj came out far ahead of the other two. The president should at least be able to form a complete and meaningful sentence, if not able to deal with larger issues such is tackling corruption. By and large, this debate once again demonstrated Mongolian politicians’ unsatisfactory knowledge and skills and consequently pointed to the desperate need for new faces, knowledge and level of competition.