By some accounts, democracy is under pressure. Freedom House, the American think tank, entitled its 2017 report, “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.”
Mongolia, meantime, held two national elections in the past year, one just last month. Both demonstrated that despite the temptations of populism, the country continues to embrace democracy. That embrace requires the engagement of young democrats in Mongolia and around the world.
Some political transformations travel through geographic proximity or ‘contagion,’ even in an age of global communication. That holds true for democracy just as it does for the decline of democracy.
Proximity to the European Union reinforced democratic revolutions across eastern Europe in the 1990s. Pro-democracy revolutions in the Arab world spread from neighbour to neighbour. Setbacks to democracy in Thailand and recently, the Philippines, look like a regional pattern.
Exception to ‘contagion’ rule
Mongolia is an exception to such patterns since its democratic revolution in 1990. It has continued to build a democracy in a hostile region where its only neighbours are China and Russia, with North Korea and Kazakhstan just beyond those nations.
As populists, some with decidedly authoritarian tendencies, swept across the world’s democracies, there was a reasonable fear that Mongolia might fall victim to the temptation of anti-establishment rhetoric offering simple solutions to complex problems — the hallmarks of political populism.
In the aftermath of world-leading growth in 2011 on the back of investments in mining projects, Mongolia’s economic fortunes declined precipitously, requiring an IMF-led bailout earlier this spring. Mongolia’s dominant political parties have not developed ideological profiles, and are largely built around patronage.
Given the primacy of economic concerns in many elections and on Mongolians’ minds, it seemed an electorate ripe for the picking for populists.
In the 2016 parliamentary election, however, virtually all members of parliament who had built up a populist profile were defeated, even though the majoritarian election system should have given them an advantage.
Mongolians cast blank ballots in protest
In both the 2016 parliamentary election and the 2017 presidential election — the fifth election in Mongolia for which I served as an international monitor — voters shrugged off attempts by the respective ruling parties to buy their support.
In 2016, it was the surprise announcement by the Democratic Party (DP) that 49 per cent of the otherwise state-owned Erdenet Mine was sold by its Russian owners to Mongolian investors. In 2017, it was the equally surprising decision by the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP)-dominated parliament to reinstate child payments and distribute shares in Erdenet Mine.
No candidate received more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on June 26, amid reports of widespread vote-buying. In the run-off that became necessary for the first time ever, voters revolted against two-party dominance by casting a “none-of-the-above” blank ballot.
The blank ballot option had only been created with revisions to the election law in 2015. More than eight per cent of the electorate submitted blank ballots — an apparent testament to their frustration with the candidates nominated by large parties.
But isn’t new President Battulga a populist?
Yes, of course, the DP’s candidate — Khaltmaa Battulga, who won the run-off with 50.6 per cent of the vote — is clearly a populist by the characteristics outlined above.
He’s not known for careful consideration of policy options, but instead for shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements. He parlays his sometimes odd projects — like the giant mounted statue of Chinggis Khaan just outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar — into claims of business expertise. He certainly flirts with encouraging sinophobia. Battulga and his opponent also embraced patriotic symbolism in their campaign.
But these were not the reasons why he managed to win the election. Instead, many voters — beyond party stalwarts — elected Battulga to provide a counterweight to MPP dominance in parliament. This was a strategic choice to force a Mongolian version of cohabitation on the MPP-led government.
Building democracy from Mongolia
This overall rejection of populism speaks to the fact that while Mongolia may not have a long democratic history, it’s an evolving democracy that has popular support. More than a young democracy, it is a democracy that is carried by the young, as more than half of the population were born after the democratic revolution.
The biggest question for the fate of democracy, likely not just in Mongolia, is the engagement of a new generation of voters and democrats.
Will younger party members in Mongolia be able to force their parties to abandon a view of political office as an earning opportunity? Can they initiate discussions about an ideological positioning of their party, in part to give Mongolians a real voice in the future development of their country?
Some civil society activists will try to build on the success of the blank ballot movement as a basis for a new party aimed at redirecting political culture away from patronage to substantive debates. Along with any mobilization against corruption, that new party could transform democracy in Mongolia.
While Mongolians did not contract democracy from their neighbours, their political choices serve as an example to the other emerging democracies of Asia, like Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic. Mongolian voters turning away from populism could be a part of a global resurgence of democracy.