By Julian Dierkes
This week Prime Minister Ch Saikhanbileg has posed a question to Mongolians on television and he is asking them to reply by SMS.
There are examples of direct involvement by the electorate in political decisions, of course (from Athenian voting to Swiss market places and beyond), but this is certainly an interesting initiative that at least looks like it could have some impact on democratic engagement.
What’s the Question?
So far, the exact wording has not been announced (see Comments below for more discussion and exact wording), but the choice that Saikhanbileg wants to hear from Mongolians on is essentially whether his government should prioritize the pursuit of big projects (presumably meaning OT and TT) in 2015/16 or respond to the on-going economic challenges with austerity measures.
Since the exact wording is not available yet, it is a little difficult to say how exactly the question will be play out.
On the face of it, however, it seems unlikely that many people would chose austerity in this situation.
I would comment, of course, that this is a false choice in that austerity is not the flip-side of the pursuit of major projects, one choice does not preclude the other choice, so this is an odd way to frame this particular question unless it gets re-worked for the version that will actually be sent out.
Why this Poll?
The initial interpretation might be that Saikhanbileg might be acting out of weakness in turning to the people for a mandate. Such weakness might be perceived in that the honeymoon period has been very brief and that there are rumblings about dissent in the coalition already, particularly focused on the DP’s handling of appointments below the cabinet level.
But there are alternative explanations to the PM’s decision for this poll.
Since he is asking specifically about big projects (and probably assuming that a majority of responses will pick those over austerity), the weakness explanation is less plausible. In all likelihood, cabinet (including the various parties represented in this super-coalition) as well as parliament in general appears to be supportive of any progress Saikhanbileg might be able to make on the big projects. If that is the case, a popular “mandate” based on an SMS poll would not add much.
Instead, it seems more plausible that Saikhanbileg has created this poll as an opportunity to communicate with Mongolians. He has just created a chance for himself to send a message to just about every Mongolian!
Why would he want to communicate with citizens?
Maybe he has a sense that he is actually nearing a breakthrough on major projects. If such a breakthrough is coming and if it includes some drastic decisions by the government (for example, to sell their stake in OT, but lots of other options might be considered), he will be able to make any announcements at least in the course of the Spring in reference to the expression of popular support that the SMS poll might provide.
If a breakthrough is not coming any time soon, the poll presents an opportunity for Saikhanbileg to illustrate to voters that he is facing very difficult choices (nothing unusual about that in politics) and to recognize that following some populist arguments against big projects, for example, has consequences by necessitating savings or a cut in expenses. So perhaps this is aiming at populist arguments (in and around parliament) rather than any opposition within cabinet or within the coalition.
This is not the first time that SMS polling is being used in Mongolia. The mayor of Ulaanbaatar, E Bat-Uul, has gone to the residents of the capital on three occasions to seek their input via SMS, though in combination with web polling.
It is also important to point out that there is no legal or legislative basis for this poll. It is not a formal referendum of any kind that would be based on legislation for the holding of such plebiscites. Instead it is a poll that happens to have been mentioned by the current Prime Minister.
It is somewhat of an official poll as the PM is clearly involving state resources in the administration of this poll. I learned from Independent Mongolian Metals & Mining Research’s Dale Choi, for example, that the Information Technology, Post and Telecommunications Agency has briefed the public on procedures that are to be used [more on that below]. But at the same time, this does not elevate the poll to anything other than that, an opportunity for some part of the population to voice their opinion on a specific topic in a non-binding way.
The fostering of a democratic consciousness has been a prominent element in official rhetoric, especially under President Elbegdorj. The most concrete implementation of direct participation has been the Local Development Fund which has now placed discussions about priorities in local infrastructure spending in the hands of citizens’ halls. It is still very unclear how evenly this is being implemented and with what results, but it has been a prominent initiative nevertheless. Note also that many of these discussions are likely to be occurring around this time of year, i.e. after the budget was passed in parliament at the end of the year and at a time when rural populations are relatively less busy with herding. The poll might thus compliment any discussions that are occurring in citizens’ halls around the same time. I have not heard any mention of institutionalizing these kinds of polls as an element in participatory democracy and would frankly be surprised to see another poll of this kind before the 2016 parliamentary election, but it may well be an experiment that will be mentioned in Mongolia and beyond. As Mongolia is engaging Myanmar and the Kirghiz Republic on democratization in particular through its development program, this might be an experiment that will have more replications or at least produce discussions beyond Mongolia as well.
Digital Democracy as Mongolia’s Future
If the argument that this poll is at least to some extent an opportunity for the Prime Minister to communicate with the electorate is plausible, what might this imply for Mongolian politics and for political culture? One of the obstacles to decision-making in Mongolia has been the fact that parties have been primarily identified with individuals and patronage and not with policy agendas. This is far from unique or limited to Mongolia and in fact very common across democracies. In the Mongolian context, however, where a single route to economic development seems to present itself forcefully, the absence of substantive policy choices in political debates has been particularly acute and has led to some policy failures in my eyes.
Will a communication to voters that points to the stark choices politics involved change this? Will voters demand more substantive electoral platforms that would actually specify a party’s stand on questions like the prioritization of large projects or austerity. Probably not in a major way, but perhaps somewhat.
Obviously, this kind of poll might breed democratic cynicism, especially if the results are in doubt, are very mixed, or Saikhanbileg/government does not implement what emerged as the popular view. But it might also foster an understanding in voters of policy choices and difficulties associated with them.
Procedures in an SMS Poll
There have been three SMS polls (in combination with in-person and web polling) in Ulaanbaatar city. Two about car regulations in 2013 (a ban on right-hand drive cars, and a system by which even/odd license plate numbers would allow drivers to use their cars) and one about a recycling scheme in 2014. In all three cases there have been some rumblings about the reliability of the results announced and contradictions int he results of the polling through the web as opposed to SMS. In the end, however, the UB city administration accepted the polling results and acted accordingly.
Voting is meant to happen between Jan 31 and Feb 3. Every cell phone number gets one vote (excluding very recently acquired numbers). The SMS will be sent free of charge allowing even subscribers who do not have any credits to send this message. The message will be in response to an SMS that will be sent out and the response will only be 1 or 2 referring to the options offered in the question posed.
Some obvious challenges:
- there is no connection to voter registration, reinforcing the lack of a legal or official status to this poll
- people might vote multiple times if they have multiple subscriptions
- it is unclear whether there will be a record of any kind
- who knows about security of SMS?
- any technical issues with overburdened servers or anything like that
- cell phone usage is not distributed equally (in regional or socio-economic status terms) though it is certainly common enough to use as a tool in Mongolia
As so often, my views particularly my views on what might motivate Saikhanbileg to call for this poll, were formed in conversation with Mongolian graduate students at UBC, including but not limited to Damdinnyam G and Mendee J.
The focus on “digital democracy” and the implications for this in Mongolia came in part out of a conversation with David Williams, Senior Desk Officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development.