This is approximately the third time that the Altankhuyag government seems to have faced serious opposition in parliament as well as in the DP itself. PM Altankhuyag has been surprisingly and impressively skilled at staying in the PM’s position despite giving no clear signs of a policy agenda that he is pursuing. Instead, his government collectively appears to be primarily in the business of being in government as an end in and of itself, rather than for specific policy aims.
From my perspective, perhaps limited to a naive outsider, I would have to note that Mongolia is facing significant policy challenges at the moment, especially in economic policy, and none of the current political shenanigans offer any significant hope that they will facilitate the making of tough decisions. Instead, everything I see (in virtually all players, individually and political parties) suggest a self-interested short-term perspective that cumulatively looks likely to be to the detriment of Mongolians.
A Brief Chronology
Two weeks ago PM Altankhuyag signed an agreement with the MPRP that seems to lock the DP into a cooperation with former president Enkhbayar’s party through the 2016 election. It is very unclear to me why Altankhuyag would want to commit to this cooperation. The MPRP seems to offer no policy perspectives to the government and seems to be beholden almost entirely to its leader, Enkhbayar. The alliance with the MPRP seems to further seal the DP’s likely electoral defeat in 2016, so why? Most of the explanations would likely focus on the personal motivations of President Elbegdorj (more on that below) or on backroom deals between various leaders.
The announcement of this agreement (pointedly made while Elbegdorj was traveling in Europe) immediately drew out DP leaders in opposition to this deal. Jenco Battulga and UB Mayor Bat-Uul were most vocal in their opposition and went into open rebellion against Altankhuyag within the DP.
Last week Altankhuyag then resigned the chairmanship of the DP [see note below], a decision that will have to be reviewed by a DP party congress. Since the law on political parties specifies that the PM should be the leader of the strongest party in the Ikh Khural, his resignation would imply that he would have to be replaced by anyone who is elected as leader of the DP in his succession. Any other constellation (i.e. anyone else as party leader, but Altankhuyag stays on as PM) would seem to be in contravention of the law on political parties.
Over the past weekend, however, there have been calls for DP party unity that might prolong Altankhuyag’s tenure.
Most of the MPP is probably right in feeling quite confident about its electoral chances in 2016. Though many things might change in 20 months until the election, it’s difficult to imagine a sequence of events until then that would give the DP a strong position in the election.
This confidence is reflected in an apparent attitude by some of the party to let the DP flounder further in its current convulsions and to simply clean up come the 2016 election.
I find that to be an equally short-sighted and irresponsible position in that I cannot imagine under what scenario a responsible politician with a concern for his/her nation’s future would prefer another 20 months of inaction/failure for the promise of a sure electoral win, especially in a situation where the MPP has not distinguished itself by proposing viable alternative policies to those “pursued” by the DP.
In fact, the strongest pitch for a MPP government appears to be that it would be staffed by different people, though it is entirely unclear what policy directions this would entail. M Enkhbold as leader of the MPP has certainly not distinguished itself by specifying any policies that would be genuine alternatives to the current mess.
While the focus is on the DP-internal turmoil this week, there surely still is some possibility for a grand coalition at some point which would likely be the scenario that holds the greatest potential for constructive decisions by the government.
The DP and the Opposition
Inherent in some of these considerations may also be an element of revenge that will be difficult to repress come an electoral win in 2016. The DP has made the very unfortunate (in policy terms) decision to replace almost all personnel in the state bureaucracy with new individuals. This has led to a great amount of turmoil and lack of continuity though it may have also placed some individuals of significant competence in responsible positions. Regardless of their competence, the DP has clearly been engaged in a game of distributing patronage appointment and using state powers to hamper the opposition. This strategy is reminiscent of the DU’s electoral triumph in 1996. What may be different this time around, however, is that the then-MPRP was restrained in its reaction when it won the 2000 election. Given the DP’s reversion to 1996 form since 2012 it is unlikely that such restraint will run strong through a 2016 MPP government.
Factional politics in the DP are very difficult to follow and I’ve never been so focused on these to really understand what’s going on. Surely some of what I say below would appear in a different light if factional politics were taken into account. But I also want to emphasize that from an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult to fight the impression that the factional divisions within the DP have turned some of the business of governing into more of a political game than a mechanism to arrive at constructive solution to policy challenges.
In conversations with Mongolians, I am regularly reminded that most people suspect Elbegdorj’s involvement in the current turmoil, even though he has appeared restrained in public. My own sense had been that he was primarily interested in using the platform afforded to him as president to secure an international position for himself for after the end of his presidency in 2017. His courting of different kinds of countries (landlocked, democratic, non-aligned, etc.) seemed to be aimed specifically at some kind of UN job. From my perspective he might actually be an effective spokesperson for a UN agency, though his managerial credentials or his policy convictions do not suggest as much.
Currently, however, speculation about his involvement seems to be focused more on attempts to secure a post-2017 political future for himself in Mongolia. This could involved “doing a Putin”, for example, i.e. running the DP again after completing his second presidential term, and perhaps paving the way for a future prime-ministership or another run at the presidency in 2021. What I fail to see in this speculation is a logic for the current action. I could imagine that Elbegdorj is cementing his personal power, but he would seem to be doing so, by letting the DP flounder, much as the opposition is prone to do.
Bat-Uul has arguably had a good run as mayor of Ulaanbaatar. Changes to the downtown are visible and the public mortgage subsidy seems to have encouraged the construction of small-scale condo projects that have begun to offer an alternative to Mongolians living in ger districts. Bat-Uul is rumoured to harbour presidential ambitions for the 2017 presidential elections and being the mayor of Ulaanbaatar is surely a viable platform for those ambitions.
As speaker of the Ikh Khural, he is already close to the centre of power, but he is almost certain to be eager to have a shot at the PM’s job. He has recently appealed for party unity, however, denying a push to replace Altankhuyag in the short term.
In the context of the current turmoil constitutional discussions have surfaced once again. What remains unresolved is the division of power between the presidency and parliament/cabinet/PM. This has led to almost constant simmering tension between presidents and prime ministers, whether these occur in a cohabitation setting or with officials from the same party. Yet, the current turmoil has little to do with this constitutional tension and surely it isn’t the time to resolve such an issue at the moment.
Predictions about what is likely to happen are fruitless in the current chaos. It does seem clear to me that a coalition government (DP and MPP in some constellation) would be most likely to have a chance at addressing some of the challenges Mongolia is facing whereas a continuation of the Altankhuyag government seems to offer the lowest probability of constructive action.
Some kind of decision should be brought about by Altankhuyag’s resignation as party chair as that resignation will have to be accepted/acted upon in some ways this week. But I’m offering no odds on the likelihood of any particular reaction to this resignation.
PS: Comments and Corrections
A number of Twitter followers have pointed out that Altankhuyag has apparently not resigned, but was simply testing the waters with talk of resignation.
I would welcome further corrections to what I’ve written above if there are errors. Please use the comment function below by clicking on <Leave a Comment>!