Beyond “Populism without Party Platforms”: Mongolians’ Politics Beyond Ulaanbaatar

By Marissa Smith

The campaign and election of the rough-voiced businessman-judoka Kh. Battulga to the presidency of Mongolia has elicited comparisons to Donald Trump and gestures to a global wave of “populism” from analysts and commentators, journalistic as well as academic, international as well as Mongolian.

There are some specifics that make this election resonate well with this framing. Appearing in a simultaneously understated and eye-catching Mongolian deel, the judoka and businessman (but not head of one of the large conglomerates) Battulga’s campaign cultivated his image as that of a Mongolian everyman-businessman-strongman.  Unlike Trump and LePen’s, however, Battulga’s popularity was largely limited to the capital Ulaanbaatar and areas of the countryside integrated with its markets rather than outlying areas or the somewhat rusty industrial cities. Not unlike in the United States and France, the election was also a three-way race, and then one with a fourth-way (the “white ballot”). Not unlike Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Melenchon, S. Ganbaatar strongly positioned himself against current establishment politics and welded popular protest with gestures to establishment politics of the past; his party’s leader former president N. Enkhbayar also took up popular narratives of critique and addressed in street protests on the “offshore” issue in March.

Beyond Belittling Binary Oppositions

Little in English has been written about Ganbaatar and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party or Enkhbold and the Mongolian People’s Party, but bringing their role and the roles of their voting supporters in the elections further into focus illuminates some important and under-discussed Mongolian demographic dynamics and related politics. In the most prevalent narratives about “a global populist wave,” peripherality (rural as well as urban) is associated with “populism,” while its usually unnamed other (which I am referring to as technocracy) is associated with cosmopolitan urban cores. Of the four election choices noted above, two generated the most conversation in English language coverage (points of view mostly from the self-consciously technocratic, globally-connected, “core,” and the Mongolian demographics that are a part of this are conversing in this vein in Mongolian): Battulga most fit the role of “populist” (попчин) and the “none of the above” white ballot fit the technocratic slot.

But many people did vote for Ganbaatar and for Enkhbold. These votes have been attributed to being protest votes, “regional allegiances” (i.e. Battulga’s origins in Bayankhongor discussed on this blog and interlocutors on social media telling me of Ganbaatar’s ties to Darkhan resulting in support there), and/or the results of bribes, i.e. not reflective of alternate consensuses on policy, or political-economic direction at least. I observed this accusation leveled on twitter particularly against Kazakhs in Bayan-Ulgii during the first round as results from the decisive western aimags were awaited. The accusations against Kazakhs in particular fixated on not just on their ethnic and religious differences from other Mongolians but their peripherality in general (being in als khiazgar soums). Ethnographic details presented by Liz Fox related to payments made to voters in a Ulaanbaatar ger district, which show voters suggesting they were “out hustling the hustlers” (luivarchid) by taking money from one party while voting for another also complicate narratives about vote-buying. (Luivar is the corruption-related term I have observed to appear most frequently during this election cycle, and it emphasizes intentional deceit and fraud, and in this case, political agency of voters as well as politicians.)

The pattern of votes suggests the form of these alternate “technocratic” forms connecting particular parties and candidates with particular demographics which cannot be easily categorized in terms of core/periphery, urban/rural, cosmopolitan/(insert pejorative…) .

Battulga was most popular in the diaspora, in Ulaanbaatar (including the central districts), and in its connected rural areas of Khentii and Bayankhongor; Enkhbold (who positioned himself in solidarity with his Mongolian People’s Party who swept parliamentary elections last summer) was most popular in the western aimags (much less connected with the markets of Ulaanbaatar); and Ganbaatar was most popular in the industrial cities of Erdenet and Darkhan (which have experienced some “Rust-Belt” or monogorod kinds of decline, but this has been tempered by the continued operations of their socialist-era industrial enterprises and their importance as diversifying regional centers of trade, transport, and to some degree manufacturing and industry), and also made a good showing in the Gobi provinces home to the newer mega-mining projects Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi. (First round data available here).

Connecting With and Criticizing the Likes of Battulga

While it has been embraced by many based in Ulaanbaatar, the diaspora, and the countryside integrated with its markets (from whence Battulga drew the most support), the image of “small businessman” or “yeoman farmer” has limited resonance in much of the Mongolian countryside where it cannot be so successfully enacted as an identity. While social scientists and journalists have richly documented the early and continued excitement of Mongolians to strike out on their own with decollectivized property, for many socialism proved almost immediately to be a hard act to follow.

In Khentii, Dornod, Bayankhongor, and Ovorkhangai, areas connected with the Ulaanbaatar markets some have succeeded in crafting a new kind of “moral exemplar” (see Manduhai Buyandelger, Andrei Marin, Daniel Murphy, and Morten Pedersen’s work). Daniel Murphy’s work in southern Khentii near the aimag center and Ulaanbaatar concerns the rise of very wealthy herders (myangat malchid) whose herds are maintained by poorer clients. He also provides statistics that suggest how many of those voting in rural districts linked to Ulaanbaatar may actually live in Ulaanbaatar much of the time; he notes that in 2008 16 percent of households registered in Uguumur did not not live in the district. One wonders how much of the rural vote represents that of those who reside primarily in Ulaanbaatar, but in any case these statistics suggest the degree of integration between this part of the countryside and the capital.

Elsewhere, however, the rise of a few “myangat malchid” and “businesspeople” is not inspirational but taken rather a symptom of postsocialist decline.

In the far western aimags this is more irrelevant as with such distance from urban markets such differentiation of wealth and power has largely not found the conditions in which to develop (though in the course of my fieldwork I have observed and documented linkage of this kind between Erdenet and Zavkhan/Uvs — and Battulga did find many voters in Zavkhan — see also Bernard Charlier’s recent ethnography based in Uvs. Battulga did also find many voters in Bayan-Ulgii, and Mongolian Kazakhs do have an international reputation as cross-border traders). During the campaign, Enkhbold’s twitter account tweeted an image of him on stage with a portrait of late socialist leader Tsedenbal.

Tsedenbal is indeed associated with the region and the Durvud ethnicity based there, but as the text of the tweet indicated, technocratic  orientations were also being highlighted (as opposed to the MPRP’s and Ganbaatar’s adoption of “grass roots” and colloquial language, the MPP’s language is rather elevated and technical, and not poetic oratory as Enkhbayar has often used). In Arkhangai, in the summer of 2012 I observed a localized continuation of socialist-era organization of production (herding households were producing prodigious quantities of dairy products along the roadside, and were able to count on it being picked up regularly on specified days of the week) between the former showcase negdel of Ikh Tamir (see Daniel Rosenberg’s ethnographic work conducted during the late socialist period) and the aimag capital Tsetserleg, and here the Mongolian People’s Party and Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Parties, with their “platform” of continuity with the Twentieth Century’s socialism, find much support.

In much of Erdenet (and I suspect to some degree also in Darkhan) it would be highly insulting to call someone an “ataman,” a term sometimes used for the entrepreneurs who trace their lineage back to subversive late socialist and immediate postsocialist border-crossing trade, as here the term is associated with the violent chaos of the 1910s rather than entrepreneurial subversion of stifling bureaucracies. In these regions, which did have more votes for Ganbaatar/MPRP and Enkhbold/MPP, people do experience positive continuities with socialism, and negative aspects of postsocialism can be played off between MPP and MPRP, as seems to have happened in Erdenet relating to dissatisfaction with the MPP’s handling of the ongoing 49%/100% privatization scandal.

Divergent Paths in International Relations

The Democratic Party’s choice of Battulga as candidate, and votes for against him and the party, may also be seen in a context of questions about Mongolia’s path in an international context after socialism. Since the beginning of the so-called postsocialist period the popularity of the Mongolian People’s Party has rested with its association with its Twentieth Century image as modernist achiever (it battled with its breakaway party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Ganbaatar’s party, for this mantle in 2011 and 2012). The Democratic Party (and fellow travelers, breakaways, and coalition partners) have relied heavily on their affiliation with not just the ideals of capitalist democracy, but its superpower embodiments: the Anglophone countries, Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. This association has proved to be more visible, immediate, and tangible in Ulaanbaatar. Though Mongolia’s western and western-oriented Asian allies have undertaken large-scale projects in the countryside, these have been of the type of Peace Corps and KOICA, which take the form of shoring up crumbling socialist infrastructure rather than replacing it. The course of the “60 Terbum” anti-corruption discourses and movement and the involvement of Ts. Oyungerel however demonstrate a doubling-down by the Democratic Party on its associations with the United States.

But the Democratic Party has not lost ground only in the countryside and those who feel themselves far away from the “third neighbors.” Meanwhile, the “white ballot” movement involves those Mongolians who have faith that Mongolia can develop with and along the lines of Western capitalist democratic principles, which many of them have studied and whose institutions they have been directly involved in, but do not have faith in the Democratic Party.

Thank you to Alexey Mikhalev for a conversation about “ataman” and my realization that specifics around usage of the term in Erdenet and elsewhere in north-central Mongolia merit discussion.

This entry was posted in Countryside, Democratic Party, Demography, Elections, Erdenet, Kazakhs, Marissa Smith, Mongolian Diaspora, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, Populism, Presidential 2017 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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