By Julian Dierkes
Just a quick reminder that I don’t dabble in Mongolian (party) politics, I just try to analyze political development, including parties and elections. In these analyses I try to stay as neutral and detached as I can.
Big Choice: Small-Mindedness or Future of the Country?
Given the size of the MPP majority, they clearly have the ability to carry to wide-ranging reforms if they decide to do so. But that ability also comes with a big responsibility for the country’s development. If Mongolians are not better off four years from now, lots of factors will have played a role, but the MPP government will be prominent among them.
So, my rosy-tinted imagination makes me think that perhaps the MPP leadership or some parts of the party will take stock and recognize that the large majority they’ve won is a real opportunity to reform the party, reform politics and set Mongolia on a different path.
Interpreting the Election Result
In that process, it is important to recall that the general sense around the June Ikh Khural election was that the MPP won its large majority be default, simply because it was not the DP, and because smaller parties and independents had been pushed aside by changes in the election law. The election should thus not be misinterpreted as a strong mandate for the MPP to do as they please.
Resisting (Economic) Pressures
As the MPP has taken over government positions, it has become clear how bad the state of public finance really is. The crushing debt that has resulted from the wasteful spending of the Chinggis Bond and thus the mortgaging of Mongolia’s financial future, leaves the new government very little manoeuvring room for new policies and initiatives.
Yet, given the extent to which Mongolian politics is patronage politics where supporters expect to be compensated for their contributions with the spoils that go to the victors, it is very likely that many individuals and companies are knocking on the door of party chair and Ikh Khural chairman M Enkhbold to secure appointments. The recording of Enkhbold discussing the cost of particular posts that was leaked just before the election suggests that appointments potentially represent two “opportunities”: a) to reward supporters, and b) for sale. It should be noted that the MPP government is no different from previous DP or MP(R)P governments in this regard, yet, patronage is not a principle that is likely to yield good outcomes for the country and for Mongolians.
Ideally, the new MPP government would thus resist the urge to make money through appointments or in positions and focus on how to re-build the Mongolian economy or at least how to bridge the time until revenue streams from mining projects rev up without going further into debt. Such a turn away from political office as a money-making opportunity would have to come through strong leadership from the very centre of the MPP.
Like the DP, the MPP would make a contribution towards its own long-term viability, toward the viability of Mongolian democracy, and toward sustainable development, by developing more of a policy platform for the party.
The massive majority the MPP commands in parliament offers the opportunity to engage in more fundamental policy analysis and development than the more day-to-day work of a tight majority or coalition government. In the same ideal world where the MPP resists the money-making urge, it also sets aside party resources, at least for the period after the presidential election and perhaps 18 months out from the 2020 election to develop policy-making capacity.
The MPP under M Enkhbold
Currently, from the outside, it seems like party leader M Enkhbold is very firmly in charge of the MPP and of the government. No alternative explanation has emerged for his decision to take the Ikh Khural chairmanship rather than becoming PM, other than his plan to run for president next year. In the meantime, no actions of the government so far suggest that Enkhbold is not pulling the strings in the background. Most of the appointments are identifiably close to him and from his “City” faction. Barring unforeseen developments, that would lead to the assumption that he would use his position as party chair to secure the candidacy for president next year. This has also been the pattern in previous presidents, i.e. they’ve kept a fairly close reign of the party even though they nominally relinquish their party position and even membership when they are nominated as a candidate for president.
Again from the outside, Enkhbold is not very easy to figure out. He strikes me as a politician who is somewhat similar to former (DP) prime minister N Altankhuyag. Neither of them are riveting speakers or particularly charismatic.
I attended a campaign rally in the final days of the 2012 campaign where Enkhbold spoke, then still a “regular” candidate from Tov.
He was wooden in his presentation and there was nothing I saw to suggest that he connected with the audience in any particular way or inspired the party faithful.
On the other hand, like Altankhuyag, he seems to manage his party well, or certainly his faction. He is thus politically skilled. There are no particular policy agendas that he has associated himself with or distinguished himself by. Substantively, it is thus very difficult to expect anything concrete from his leadership, and his likely presidency would be similarly unclear. Note the parallel with Altankhuyag in this regard. Is there a positive policy or political decision that you can recall from Altankhuyag’s primeministership?
Enkhbold’s skills as a political operative raise some concerns over the extent to which he will be governing for the good of the people (especially in the more lofty role of president) as opposed to the good of his party or of himself. It’s obviously early to tell, but he has not given off any indications that he is reaching for bigger goals, though his government so far is limited by budget woes in what it might pursue.
The MPP election victory was such that there is essentially no opposition to its government. That is terrific, as it offers a real opportunity to consider policies carefully (see above) and to enact them strategically, but it is also dangerous as the usual checks-and-balances on democratic government are somewhat suspended under such a majority.
It becomes an important task for a ruling majority to give an opportunity to internal voices of (substantive) opposition, as well as listening to external criticism. This is especially true in a situation like the current MPP government where there is a strong sense that it won the election on the basis of an anyone-but… choice, rather than on the strength of its platform.
The MPP is much less likely (than the DP) to break out in factional disputes, so internal opposition will remain invisble. But, the presidential election in 2017 will be an important moment for the party. If Enkhbold is the official candidate of the MPP as I expect, he would relinquish the party chair. A number of MPP leaders who have been somewhat sidelined at the moment, including former president N Bagabandi, and former prime ministers S Bayar, and Su Batbold, may well try to regain some power within the MPP at that point by succeeding Enkbold as party chair. By contrast, Enkhbold will certainly seek to install a party chair from his own faction who may then replace J Erdenebat as prime minister as well. Should Enkhbold lose the presidential election after having been nominated, he would presumably not return as party chair.
Note that in this discussion of party politics, I have not mentioned the role of a younger generation of MPP leaders. Isn’t it time that the 1970s and 1980s cohorts step up to leadership position so that the MPP can avoid some of the leadership paralysis the DP has been suffering from?
Back to that Rosy Future…
But, those are only the strategic/factional/political aspects of an internal opposition.
To imagine some kind of rosy future, a political turn toward policy-making seems essential as is some kind of movement (from within or from the outside) against corruption.
That rosy future under M Enkhbold and the MPP is just that so far, a rosy imagined scenario. The coming year leading up to the presidential election will offer many challenges but will also begin to give observers (and Mongolians) a sense of what kind of government the MPP government will be.