Guest Post: Five Reasons Why Democracy in Mongolia is Working

By Daniel Schmücking and Adiyasuren J

Mongolia is hailed as an ‘oasis of democracy’, as a shining example of democratic development, and as a model for other post-communist countries especially the Central Asian nations to strive to. Although, many challenges such as corruption and the fragile state of democratic institutions are a cause for concern to the fate of democracy in Mongolia, it is often seen as a relative success in regards to other nations that transitioned from communism to democracy. Indeed Mongolia consistently ranks considerably higher than the five Central Asian republics in a number of studies such as the Corruption Perception Index 2016 by Transparency International, Freedom in the World 2017 report by Freedom House and the Transformationsindex 2016 by the Bertelsmann Foundation. Naturally, many factors lead to this. In this article, it was attempted to point out the five biggest reasons that differentiate Mongolia from other nations with similar starts. Note that every argument is a topic for its own (and lengthy) analysis and thus has been written to give the reader an idea of the many concepts and notions behind it.

1. An early and indigenous democratic movement gave rise to a strong commitment to democracy

As Glasnost and Perestroika were underway in the Soviet Union, an indigenous movement of young Mongolians formed to demand change to the system. This domestic movement started in late 1989 and evolved into large scale demonstrations of more than a hundred thousand people by March of 1990, which in turn forced the communist regime to dissolve the politburo and conduct free and fair elections by June of that year. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Mongolia already started and finished its democratic revolution. As the Central Asian republics woke up the news of independence from the Soviet Union, Mongolia already had a head start of two years.

The fact that Mongolia had an indigenous democratic movement also shows that the democratic change was not thrust upon them, but that they gave birth to the idea and fought for it. This sense of struggle for democracy fortifies the trust and confidence of the Mongolian people in the democratic process.

2. A common ethnicity and religion leads to a cohesive national identity

A strong sense of national identity is a cornerstone for any national movement to succeed. History, specifically that of Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol Empire in the 13th century is key to the shaping elusive concept of national identity of modern Mongolia. Nevertheless, there are other factors that contribute to the cohesion or division of a people, chief among which are religion and ethnicity. The nomadic life style of the Mongolians affected their perception of nationalities and ethnicities. During the height of the Mongol Empire, the state incorporated hundreds of ethnicities and thus had a relatively tolerant view towards other people, most of the time. However, for 8 centuries the core of Mongolia has mostly been inhabited by ethnic Mongolians. At the beginning of the 20th century Mongolians along with some Chinese, Russian and Tibetan minorities inhabited the country. Later Kazakhs were added to the mix. This did not greatly affect the makeup of the population. To this today Mongolia could be described as a homogenous state. The lack of large and numerous minority groups may not have played a positive role in the democratic movement, but on the other hand it did not lead to ethnic conflicts in the unstable years after the transition, a theme commonly found in other transitioning states. The question of ethnicity has another face, that of religion. Although, all transitioning nations are secular and they have a history of secularism through communism, we cannot deny the influence religion can have on politics and on national unity and identity. With that in mind Mongolia is a country with many religions and beliefs such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity as well as Shamanism. Due to this nomadic heritage religion has never been a central aspect of social life. However, three centuries of Buddhism has shaped a significant proportion the Mongolian identity. Possibly, due to the nomadic way of life, where being attached to a church or place doesn’t make much sense, or due to communism, or even due to the nature of Buddhism, religion does not play a unifying nor dividing role in society. Furthermore, religion hasn’t been used as a political factor.

3. The semi-presidential system and the division of power lead to a fragile yet functioning stability

Possibly the biggest change to the New Constitution of 1992, was the introduction of the semi-presidential system of governance. The Government of Mongolia is established on the basis of a majority vote in the parliament. This is a trait common to parliamentary democracies. However, the Mongolian President is directly elected by the people of Mongolia. This arrangement has had a significant effect on the course and nature of politics in the country. First of all, the absence of president who is the head of the executive branch of the state, decentralizes power from one individual to considerably more. This change was vital to move away from the tradition of a strongman making all decisions and essentially function as a dictator. The communist heritage and style of governance in this part of the world makes it relatively easy for presidents to fall to the allure of authoritarianism. However, the dispersal of power to many individuals serves as a guarantee for democracy, or at the very least assurance against the rule of one person.

Second, the parliamentary aspect of the semi-presidential system ensures the representation of the people and leads to a balance of power between the judicial system attached to the presidency, the legislative responsibilities by the parliament, and the executive duties of the government. Unlike some of the neighbors where power is localized to a specific group of people, Mongolia has created an unstable and often needing of improvement but nevertheless functioning balance of power. However, this comes at a cost. In a system where power is centralized, decisions are made faster and the implementation of it is seen through. In the Mongolian case, this arrangement, designed to restrict the abuse of power, is working so well that the different political parties and institutions are limiting each other with negative effects on economic policy, investment, as well as the reputation of Mongolian law and its longevity.

Third, a multiparty system with two big parties, possibly three depending on who you ask, has become the core of Mongolian political life. A plethora of other parties do exist but with limited reach and gravity. This somewhat rich and arguably healthy political life provides the sustainable setting for a strong opposition movement inside and outside the parliament. Furthermore, a balance of power between the parties, but especially between the two big parties, leads to stability and one of the most essential elements of a functioning democracy, the peaceful transition of power.

4. Strong civil society and free media both check and balance the state

Coupled with a powerful opposition a dynamic civil society fulfills the role of watchdogs in the Mongolian society. The emergence of civil society dates back to early days of the democratic transition. Domestic non-governmental organizations have played an active role to fill the void for the need for advocacy, monitoring of neglected topics and the outreach to disenfranchised groups.

Unlike other states, international civil society organizations are not branded as ‘foreign agents’ or are seen as a negative influence to the country. This positive perception allowed the introduction of a great number of international civil society organizations into Mongolia. These foreign NGOs don’t only enrich the civil society environment in the country but also bring in much needed human and financial resources to areas of vital importance such as the fostering of democracy, the advocacy of human rights, gender equality, environmental preservation, development of democratic institutions, civil participation in political decision making and much more.

An inseparable aspect of civil society is the presence of a free media. There is no denying that big money and politics is closely tied to the media sector in this country. However, their freedoms to report, analyze, and criticize events and persons are ensured. The volume of traditional news outlets and the nearly uncensored social media sector are a key factor to the dissemination of information in the society and its national reach.

5. Foreign policy aligned with democratic and peaceful values

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years before it, Mongolia has actively tried to position and re-identify itself more with the democratic values of Europe, North America, and importantly East Asian highly developed democracies. Pursuant of its ‘Third Neighbor’ policy, the country has keenly established and developed relations with highly developed democracies and regularly sends a significant portion of its armed forces to UN peacekeeping mission in the spirit of being a responsible member of the international community. This move not only cemented the open and peaceful principles of Mongolia’s foreign policy but it also contributed to make Mongolia a more attractive country for development aid and investment for donors.

About the Authors

Dr. Daniel Schmücking is currently working as the Country Representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Mongolia. He specializes in political communication und international relations.

Adiyasuren Jamiyandagva is currently the Executive Director of the Academy of Political Education in Mongolia. Previously he worked as a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia. His research focus was on Mongolia’s relations to NATO and the OSCE.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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