By Julian Dierkes
One of the prominent topics in political discussions of the past 2-3 years has been constitutional reform. This has been brought about by the indeterminate compromise between a parliamentary and presidential democracy that the framers of the Mongolian constitution in 1992 reached. Periods of cohabitation (i.e. when the president of a different party than the majority of parliament as has been the case for the past year) are particularly difficult, but even when they represent the same party, conflict between the president and party leaders and the prime minister has been frequent.
In practice, the main power that is reserved for the president is oversight over various parts of the judicial system. This has been even clearer under Pres. Elbegdorj as he has asserted this authority over the Anti-Corruption Agency (ATG), but also over the courts.
While the president also chairs the National Security Council and commands the military, this doesn’t actually give him/her the power to make military decisions. Likewise, the power to appoint ambassadors, doesn’t give formal authority over foreign policy. That’s why there are ministries of foreign affairs and of defence who are cabinet members, not subordinate to the president.
For a number of different reasons, constitutional debates have become more pressing in the past 2-3 years. Various reform proposals have been floated, and there currently is an experimental process in deliberative democracy that is meant to support these discussions, though it remains somewhat obscure in origins and directions.
Promises in the Election Platforms
Yet, despite these debates, the election platforms suggest an all-powerful presidency.
After its broad preamble and topics covered under “2.1 Human Rights and Justice”, virtually all of Battulga’s campaign platform addresses topics that are not under the jurisdiction of the president. Take “2.3 Health Care” as an example. Few Mongolians would disagree with the aspiration that “Health Care and Medicine will be updated with newest technologies. A Mongolian citizen will be able to get diagnostics and treatments of the highest level in his homeland.” In fact, this addresses the serous topic of medical tourism that allows wealthier Mongolians to receive superior medical services abroad while ordinary Mongolians must rely on a domestic health care system that is hampered by budgetary and technology constraints. Yes, this is an important issue, but is it one where the president has any impact?
The beginning of Ganbaatar’s election platform is particularly ironic in this regard.
He opens his platform with a discussion of the “the gap between the election promises made by the political parties and their action after the election”. Yet, the very next paragraph discusses unemployment as a paramount problem. Yes, conversations with Mongolians and the results of several surveys confirm that unemployment is a serious issue. But, Ganbaatar proposes to address this issue by,
- Making the government accountable;
- Reducing and eliminating unemployment;
- Reducing and eradicating poverty.
And how exactly would a president achieve that?
The remaining sections of Ganbaatar’s platform do seem more closely focused on some of the roles that the president takes on. The second part addresses justice and the judicial system. When he talks about “public interest” (part three) and national pride (part four), these are all broad claims about the direction of the country where the moral and symbolic leadership seems of a president seems more appropriate than in the concrete fight against unemployment. The platform largely continues in this vein, though that also means that it is exceedingly vague, sometimes even poetic in its aspirations.
In structure, Enkhbold’s campaign platform is built more like Battulga’s than Ganbaatar’s. That is, he similarly starts with some very broad aspiration of his mission as president and some issues grouped under “National Unity, Mongolian Pride”.
After that discussion, a long list of issues that Enkhbold would hope to tackle follows. Where the first set of issues refers to the judiciary, the connection to the tasks of a president is fairly direct. But further down that list, for example in a section on “Middle Class – Wealth Creation”, it is less clear what the connection to constitutionally specified tasks for the president is.
Of course, Enkhbold would serve as a president with the collaboration of an MPP-led government and legislature, so he would be more likely to be able to implement some of his goals by collaborating with the government, but not necessarily through the nature of the presidency.
Of course, the president does have the right to introduce legislation in the Ikh Khural. So, in some ways, he would be able to pursue an agenda on topics where s/he has no direct involvement. But is that what Mongolians are looked for, namely an alternative legislator who is not involved in the implementation of the legislation s/he introduces?
The president also chairs the National Security Council. Given the mandate of the NSC to safeguard the country, it has previously made statements on health care, the environment and other issues that are deemed closely linked to the welfare of the nation. So, statements on these topics by Enkhbold and Battulga could be interpreted to fall roughly into the portfolios addressed by the NSC. At the same time, the NSC itself is not an implementing body and relies on the government to actually do the things it maps out.
Audit of Electoral Campaigns
I’ve always been very interested in provisions in Mongolia’s election laws that require an audit and approval of electoral platforms by the General Election Commission. This is in part to present a situation like 2008 where the MPP and DP outbid each other in cash grants that they promised the population. Not only do platforms have to be approved, but candidates actually have to stick to these approved platforms in the campaign. Good idea, no?
Yet, all the examples of items in electoral platforms above suggest that this audit does not check electoral platforms on the question whether the president is actually in a position to affect the change that s/he has promised.
Coming Constitutional Reform
Will this mismatch between the constitutional role of the presidency and the campaign platforms matter?
There other factors in this election that will probably have a greater impact on the likelihood of constitutional reform. But that’s a topic for another post, I think.
This blog post started with a conversation I had with a member of the diplomatic corps in Ulaanbaatar who pointed out the mismatch between constitutional powers of the presidency and the campaign platforms.