Triggers of Upheaval

By Julian Dierkes

The sense of political crisis and frustration is rampant in Mongolia at the moment. But, there does not seem to be any widespread mobilization against the government, either main party, or the political system. Whether that is out of resignation and apathy, currently no movements seem on the horizon.

However, I would estimate that we will see one or several moments of social and political unrest over the next 5-10 years. I remain optimistic that democracy will prevail, but it may take a different form and the party landscape may also be transformed in the process.

Given the resignation that appears to be widespread among many Mongolians, I am assuming that any political upheavals (other than the customary but meaningless rotations in cabinet ministers) will have to be triggered by some specific event. Mongolians have taken to the streets in protest historically, most obviously in the winter of 1989-90 in the democratic revolution. Mass protests thus seem the most likely trigger for political upheaval


The current political frustration seems to inspire more passivity than action. An example of this could be the “blank ballot” movement in the 2017 presidential election. Yes, a small number of activists definitely overcame their resignation, but most of their supporters, 8% of the voters who turned out to vote, this protest was rather passive.

Frustration on its own thus seems unlikely to generate large scale protests and protests of a significant scale (let’s say 30-50,000 upwards) will be needed to bring about significant change.


What issues might frustrated Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar and other cities and towns rally around to take to the streets?

This September we are seeing significant protests related to the teachers’ strike. More typically, protests should be expected in the Spring, the traditional protest season as people come out of a long winter and Spring is in the air.

Simmering Issues: Basic Necessities

There are some simmering issues that may lead to protests without some particular event, especially those concerning basic necessities of life. Strikes might point to some such issues and these might boil over into larger protests movements especially if there is an economic crisis or downturn. Poverty or economic challenges such as changes in exchange rates, gas prices, or interest rates might also unleash protests, as could decisions by the city administration to drastically alter some aspect of traffic or service delivery, adding to the stress of life in Ulaanbaatar in the winter.

Air pollution is an issue that has brought thousands of protesters into the streets in the last several years. While it is most severe in Ulaanbaatar (Guardian article), almost all aimag centres, especially those that find themselves ringed by mountains, suffer. Protests about air pollution usually taper off in May-June, as coal is no longer burned in stoves and the skies clear. If air pollution somehow combined with a more punctuated event, that could also generate significant protests, I suspect.

Punctuated Events

The more likely trigger for mass protests would be a punctuated event, I suspect.

There are several different events that might trigger protests, I think, particularly in Ulaanbaatar.

The most likely event, in my estimation, would be linked to corruption as that is perhaps the greatest source of frustration in the electorate. As most Mongolians currently seem to suspect their entire political leadership of being in politics to serve themselves, corruption “on its own” may not be enough of a trigger. I would suspect that a specific case may be more likely to produce significant protests. Take the ₮60b case as an example. The Anti-Corruption Authority has recently announced that it would take up the investigation of the leaked recording of discussions of a price list for state offices again.

While this Transparency International tweet is focused on armed conflict, it would certainly apply to protests, etc. as well:

The most prominent target for this investigation is M Enkhbold, speaker of the Ikh Khural, former MPP party chair and failed presidential candidate. One of the aspects of corruption that I have heard most frustration expressed over is the lack of follow-through by judges and prosecutors. In the ₮60b case, large parts of the public seem prepared to believe that Enkhbold did engage in the recorded conversation and thus confirmed the plan to sell state offices, something that is anathema to the role of politics and elections as allowing the citizenry not only to make choices about the future of the country, but also expect these to be carried out with some degree of competence. Even if these allegations are difficult to tie to specific cash donations to the party or to particular appointments of individuals into offices, the plan for such sales is fundamentally undermining the democratic state and its capacity to carry out the will of the people.

Regardless of any actual charges that might result from an investigation, I could imagine an acquittal or an announcement that the investigation would be dropped to trigger protests, first on this case in particular, then around the broader issue of corruption, not limited to a specific person or party. In Enkhbold’s case in particular, the DP may ironically be interested in dragging this out as long as possible, most likely to the 2020 parliamentary election, to use against the MPP.

There could also be an actual crime linked to corruption that might trigger protests. An attack on a whistle blower, for example, or some unmasked cover-up, or a more blatant revelation of corruption through the leaking of documents like the Panama Papers.

Another event that could trigger protests could be some particularly heinous crime. Mongolians were enraged by the rape and murder of a child last year. Sadly, those crimes occur (and the death penalty that Pres Battulga proposed hastily in response is clearly ineffective in preventing such crimes, never mind that it would be an international relations disaster for Mongolia, especially with many third neighbours (other than the U.S.)), so news of a similarly terrible crime might trigger protests that would not be directed at a particularly party, but would be an outlet for long-simmering frustration.

Strong anti-Chinese sentiment among Mongolians could also motivate protests. Events that would trigger such protests could be the announcement of a major concession or sale of a Mongolian asset to Chinese interests. During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang’s August visit, there was speculation that the proposed IPO for the Tavan Tolgoi coal project might be a moment when state-owned parts of that project might be sold to a Chinese investor. No one would have been particularly surprised by such a sale, I think, but some such event might lead to protests.

The attempted abduction of V Akçay in July by Turkish security agents led to very quick mobilization of alumni of the Turkish schools demonstrating the skill and speed with which Ulaanbaatarites can mobilize. If there was some vaguely similar development involving China, the civil (or, perhaps not so civil) society reaction might be fierce. Given recent developments in Xinjiang and relations with Central Asia, imagine, for example, a scenario involving an ethnic Mongol in Inner Mongolia. Protests against Han-immigration into the IMAR and against recent decisions about language rights always remain uncorroborated (see the “Southern Mongolia Watch” by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center), but seem to constitute a constant buzz of protest in Mongolian areas of China. Let’s say an ethnic Mongol was arrested in the IMAR in some such protest by managed to flee to Mongolia. In the past, the Mongolian does seem to have extradited individuals on request to the PRC, but if there was such a request for extradition of a Mongol who had protested in defence of Mongolian rights but might have even been branded a terrorist for his protest (as seems to be Chinese government custom involving Muslims at least), and there were any hints that the Mongolian government would comply with such a request, I do think that the Mongolian public would be quickly mobilizable.

Anti-Chinese sentiment could also determine the response to a number of different kind of events that might occur at Chinese-invested mines or factories. A mine accident involving Mongolian workers, or any kind of environmental accident might be such an event.


Currently, it does not seem like political frustration among Mongolians will lead to some kind of movement aimed at individual politicians, parties, or democracy. However, I expect some such movement(s) to occur in the medium term, triggered by some kind of event, most likely in the Spring. In a further post, I will speculate about what might happen in the event of widespread protests.

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 and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Air Pollution, Corruption, Democracy, Human Rights, Ikh Khural 2020, Inequality, JD Democratization, Judiciary, Party Politics, Politics, Populism, Protest, Public Opinion, Security Apparatus, Social Change, Social Movements, Younger Mongolians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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