By Julian Dierkes
A crushing defeat like the one that the DP suffered on June 29 should lead to some party-soul searching. More than two months after the election, I can only imagine that questions about the future of the DP, both, immediate as well as long-term are being asked.
To me, this soul-searching will have to find the answers to a whole host of questions. The answers to five big questions will determine the party’s future, I think.
I am writing this not because I am in any close to or supportive of the DP in a partisan way, but because a functioning democracy needs a vibrant opposition. While the recent election was a positive surprise in terms of the turnout, and its clear result, the overwhelming majority that the MPP now holds and might be able to build on for next year’s presidential election also holds some real risks.
1. Unity or Split?
The DP has alway struggled with its internal divisions and factions. It seems to me that this is in part because it was originally founded around opposition against the then-MPRP, now-DP, not as a political movement in a particular ideological direction. To the extent that the main issue in the DP’s platform is democracy, this has long been achieved in some ways in Mongolia, so it leaves the party without a unifying element. Sure, democracy requires continued work and vigilance, but it is no longer the main thrust of any kind of movement in Mongolia. The organizational origins in a number of different parties leaves the DP hamstrung as these parties, and sometimes more importantly, their leaders live on.
The nature of Mongolian politics with its focus on patronage also represents a centrifugal force. This was clear in the past election when one of the great frustrations that voters seemed to feel was around the internal struggles within the DP that prevented some policies/policy mistakes during the DP-led government.
It’s not that the MPP or other parties are immune from internal struggles, but the DP does suffer more (publicly) from there, so some of the efforts in the coming four years should be directed at unifying the party. If party unity cannot be built either through strong leadership (see 2.) or through the development of a policy platform (see 4.) perhaps the DP and also Mongolia would be better off with a split into two or even three parties that do have a clearer profile and would thus contribute to a sharpening of political discourse in Mongolia around policy questions.
2. Rejuvenation or Ossification?
One of the challenges to party unity has also been the continued leadership of the original democrats. Most of the more prominent DP politicians were involved in the democratic revolution of the early 1990s and very few younger or more recent politicians have come to the fore in the party.
Most prominently, this holds for Elbegdorj. Independent of his qualities as a politicians and/or policy-maker, he has been very involved in national politics for 25 years now. But, despite this long record, it does not seem entirely like he’s ready to leave politics yet even though his presidential term will run out next year and he is not allowed to run for president again (at least not next year).
Of course, “Ebe” was young when he got involved in democratic politics, so he’s still young now, at 53.
One or two years ago, most of the speculation focused on Elbergdorj’s likely ambition for some kind of international role, most likely with the UN. That’s certainly something that I have been expecting for some time. It would fit very well with his desire to keep Mongolia (and himself) in the mind of the international community and with all of his initiatives on the international stage. Some time ago, it would’ve seemed that his chances at a UN position would have been good. The Secretary General route always seemed like a very remote chance, but head of a UN mission? Or head of some other international organization like the Community of Democracies? Those kind of positions would seem to suit him very well. It should also be noted that if he were appointed into some position like that, it would suit Mongolia well, as he will continue to give the country some prominence in international affairs.
What are his chances? Who knows! There are so many political traps involved with many of those appointments that it’s difficult to say in the abstract. But consider Mongolia’s and thus Elbegdorj’s credentials as democratic, somewhat neutral and certainly non-threatening, hopeful in terms of economic/social development (despite the current woes) and you’d have to guess that the opportunity for an international appointment does exist.
The other subject of speculation is whether Elbegdorj will try to “do a Putin”, i.e. promote a caretaker for himself to then run for office again at the next opportunity, i.e. the 2020 parliamentary or 2021 presidential election. His long-time chief of staff, Tsagaan, has been mentioned in this context. There was some plausibility to this speculation up until the election. Now, the DP’s chances in the presidential election seem quite remote, so it seems unlikely that Elbegdorj would have a chance to “appoint” his successor.
Next year’s presidential election may be a moment when we will see some suggestions as to which direction the DP might turn.
Until recently, Bat-Uul certainly would have seemed like an obvious candidate for the presidency. Another long-time democracy partisan his role as mayor of Ulaanbaatar has been quite prominent and despite some of the grumbles about corruption, etc., generally I thought he was perceived as a reasonably successful mayor. The election results in June belie this sense, of course, as the DP got thrown out of city politics just as much as they did out of the Ikh Khural. Did that kill Bat-Uul’s chances at nomination? Perhaps, especially since they were already small due to his ambivalent role within the party. But who else?
Enkhbold Z clearly harboured presidential ambitions and some of his politicking during the last two years of the DP government made it seem like he was angling for the party’s nomination. But it never seemed like he was particularly popular as an individual. The direct election of the president does require some level of personal popularity.
A younger candidate would obviously make a statement! But who? It does not seem like the DP or any of its faction or party leaders have really groomed a new generation of leaders. Yet, if the MPP nominates M Enkhbold – as seems very likely, see his staying aloof from the government despite his role as party leader – his lack of charisma and profile would seem to leave the door open for a younger/new candidate that could attract some of the voters who had been frustrated previously, but might not have intended to give the MPP full control of all politics for some years.
More Thoughts to Come
I will continue this consideration of the future of the DP in a future post and will focus that on three more central questions, what about democratization?, what about policy?, what about corruption? and will consider other challenges to the future of the DP as well.