The spectre of the July 1 2008 riots still loom over Mongolian elections. While full explanations never really emerged, it seems that those riots were a combination of some orchestration of protests, the latent potential for protests in frustrations about the election, as well as a lack of preparation by the police.
If those were the factors that led to violence, then – fortunately – two of these factors don’t hold for the coming election on June 29 or its immediate aftermath:
- Since the 2008 riots, the police has been preparing systematically for incidents of unrest. Presumably that preparation means that any unrest would be handled more professionally, i.e. with a focus on de-escalation and appropriate responses.
- If there was some orchestration of protests in 2008, neither of the two main parties is likely to plan anything similar this year, in part because there is a widespread sense that 2008 was a very regrettable blip that was bad for Mongolia, and so should not be repeated.
Yet, I do see some reasons to be nervous about the immediate aftermath of the election because I see a number of factors that are likely to leave some voters frustrated. This frustration coupled with the general social ferment brought about by unemployment, lack of opportunity, and lack of prospects in some parts of Ulaanbaatar especially, is a potentially explosive mix.
Frustration about the Result: Parties
Given the dismal performance of the Mongolian economy over the past four years and the infighting and some chaos that has characterized the DP government, a thorough defeat of the DP would not be surprising. Yet, changes to the electoral law that set up hurdles for smaller parties, may mean that the Great Khural will be roughly divided between the MPP and the DP with only a few independents making it into parliament as non-big party MPs. Whether or not the MPP ends up winning or coming close to a majority of 39 seats, it now looks likely that the DP will return with relatively strong representation.
Frustration about the Results: Options
Why might the DP return a strong showing? Well, in part because of manipulations of the election system. But the other element that I have been hearing a lot about is voters’ frustration with the lack of alternatives. That is in part frustration with the self-destruction of the XUN Party and the apparent dissolution (as a parliamentary force) of the CWGP. For a brief moment last year, XUN inspired some who were looking for more professional politicians, with more real world and foreign experience, and a dedication to anti-corruption efforts, me included.
The other part of this frustration is that a significant portion of the electorate, especially in Ulaanbaatar, is likely committed to vote against the MPP and the MPRP, but also disappointed by the DP’s government. That doesn’t leave such a voter a lot of options.
A further contributing factor to the sense of a lack of options is that there are very few new faces coming up in either of the big parties. Only 21 of the 76 constituencies don’t have an incumbent in the race. This is certainly the case for the DP which continues to be dominated by some of its founders and “democratic revolution heroes” who are all ageing and remain stuck in their factional ruts. There is no obvious force for rejuvenation that has any parts of the electorate particularly excited as far as I can tell.
In the MPP, there are at least some structures for a generation turnover in place, but at the same time, there isn’t much buzz around any of the current leadership or some of the younger faces that are making their way through the party structure.
Doubts about the Results
Unfortunately, some doubting of the election results has been a common feature in past elections. Not only was this ostensibly the motivation for the July 1 riots, but the whole discussion of the “black machines” has been characterized by deep-seated mistrust of the counting and reporting process.
Presumably, the 2004 electoral system with 76 majoritarian districts should make the counting relatively straight-forward. Having said that, the deployment of electronic counting in 2012 did not bring the expected/desired speed in the counting-process in part because there are significant enough delays along the way that the process is not as easy as 1, 2, 3, count, report, aggregate. Out of fear about the aftermath of the election, results came very quickly on the morning after the election in 2012. But if the result is not entirely clear and/or if some constituencies might not reach the minimum required 50% participation, the results might be somewhat delayed. Any such delay will fuel speculation and doubt, in part because those are the default reactions to discussions about the counting process.
Ulaanbaatar in late June
One factor makes this election different, of course, the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit, July 15-16, with numerous heads of state and heads of government expected in town less than three weeks after the election.
Because of this event and the international visibility that will come with it for Mongolia, I’m sure that the government and all officials in the security apparatus will do everything to avoid protests or – worse – any kind of violence following the election.
I would not be surprised if alcohol was banned earlier than just the day before the election. Arrests of potential agitators appear to be happening already. On the election night itself, the police will be discretely omnipresent, I suspect.
However, what if the frustrations I foresee do boil over and express themselves in somewhat spontaneous protests, perhaps not in the centre of Ulaanbaatar but on the edge of the central area, for example? If anything were to escalate, the security forces would obviously be very reluctant to respond with any kind of force, as some parts of the world will be watching very closely in anticipation of the ASEM summit. But if protests turn violent and are not met with a forceful response? What happens if there is intermittent rioting for three nights running because no one actually wants to declare a state of emergency that close to a summit? Are there contingency plans to cancel/move ASEM?
What about races that end up undecided or close to it by some days after the election? Would the election commission then suddenly wave the minimum 50% threshold simply to force a result? How would such a decision be received?
I am not quite predicting riots, but I would not be surprised if they did occur. While I was fairly certain in 2012 that the election and the reporting of results was going to pass smoothly, I am much less certain of that this year.