By Julian Dierkes
During my most recent visit to Mongolia, I heard talk of political crisis everywhere. [A strong argument for visiting more often!] Not the kind of crisis that could be resolved by a change of government, although rumours of that are in the air as well – as is customary for the Fall. And also not the kind of crisis that can be resolved by constitutional change, proposals for which may well be introduced in parliamentary committees in the Fall session. No, this is perceived to be a crisis of leadership, lack of delivery on policy aspirations, and corruption.
I heard talk of this crisis among acquaintances and friends, but also in public fora and in smaller discussions. Such talk was pervasive among all, well-connected Ulaanbaatarites as well as folks in aimag centres and in the country.
This crisis could be viewed as a crisis of democracy when we think of democracy in part as an attitude, not just as the sum of rights and legally prescribed paths for participation. Much of the research on political transition (see for example H Hartmann’s “The Erosion of Democracy in Developing and Transition Countries“) is focused on legal rights and rule of law, of course, rather than on the spirit of democracy. When it comes to rights, Mongolia is still in a very fortunate situation as is demonstrated by many global indices, but it may be voters’ perception of their opportunity to make their voices heard that is declining,
Elements of Crisis
Three topics recur in most of the currents discussions of crisis:
- Lack of implementation of laws
At this point and as I have written before, corruption is perceived to be pervasive and intractable. Most Mongolians I speak to would say quite literally that there is no single person or group in national politics whom they don’t suspect of being corrupt. This corruption is mostly of the kind that MPs and politicians more generally are acting on their own behalf, not on behalf of the nation. This is generally linked to the prominence of businessmen (and some women) in politics, but also to the factions and particular individuals in leadership positions. Perceptions of corruption are in no way limited to one particular party or grouping, but hold for all current actors, even those who might represent a party that an interlocutor is affiliated with. The pervasiveness of corruption is also indicated by a perception of the inefficacy of anti-corruption institutions or anti-corruption claims by politicians.
At this time, both large political parties appear to be unable to reform themselves.
While factional fights had previously been somewhat contained within the MPP, they seem to be breaking out in the open more. Last year’s battle before Khurelsukh was elected as prime minister were a sign of such battles, but so is the loss of some of the energy around Khurelsukh from his initial drive for reform. Khurelsukh has been a very quiet PM for the past six months or so in my observation and appears to be somewhat resigned to resistance against any kind of change.
On the other hand of the MPP divisions is M Enhkbold. It is a rare circumstance where a political leader ran a very lacklustre presidential campaign and has been accused of the most corrosive kind of corruption (!) for two years now (the alleged pricelist for state offices associated with the ₮60b scandal), but is still clinging not only to a parliamentary seat, but to his role as speaker of parliament. The fact that allegations have been known for two years now, but that no concrete action towards an investigation that might lead to real and actionable conclusions seem likely, heightens the sense of crisis for most Mongolians and observers.
Of course, the DP is not immune to this leadership crisis in public perception. While Pres Battulga is nominally of the DP, he is perceived to be largely in politics for his own good, for his power and, allegedly, his profit. In that he is perceived as not entirely dissimilar to M Enkhbold by partisans from the opposite side.
Factions in the DP persist, but what may weigh even more heavily on Mongolians’ perception of the party is that there is no sense of the likelihood of turnover in the party’s leadership, despite the devastating defeat the long-time leadership suffered in the 2016 election. If Mongolian voters stick to their habit and decide to alternate between parties again, they will give the DP an election victory in 2020, something that seems to be assumed to be a likely outcome by many, including many in the MPP which – it needs to be noted – is currently governing with a super majority! But what would a victorious DP do in policy terms and who would lead it? Most Mongolians have no idea and very little hope in this regard.
Meanwhile, the MPRP may be regaining some credibility with a solidifying alliance between N Enkhbayar and S Ganbaatar at the (sometimes-disputed) helm of the party. But few would see the MPRP as a driver of meaningful reform or concrete policy changes.
While this leadership crisis does fuel a hunger for some kind of third and, possibly, fourth party, confidence in the chance at success for any new party appears to be low.
Lack of Implementation of Laws
The perception that Mongolia has many good laws, strategic plans, and intentions, but that few of them ever get a chance at impact through implementation has been a topic on this blog before. Many Mongolians now appear to agree with that assessment.
This agreement, of course, is devastating to any activism on specific topics. A common response to musings about reforms in particular areas is, “But will that be implemented?”. An example is the current projects aiming at a civil service reform. Yes, most would agree with the need for and even some elements in such a reform, but confidence that a reform would be a major step in combatting corruption, for example, is low.
Mongolians are in a political funk. That is obviously cause for concern in Mongolia, but also beyond in a world where democracy seems to be on the defensive.
Clearly, what appears to be a consensus on the presence of a crisis is important. The general agreement on the causes of this crisis is also important, the diagnosis appears to be agreed upon.
But, now what? Since the crisis is perceived to be one of the political leadership not being able to or willing to address challenges, many Mongolians seem disheartened and are shying away from addressing this crisis through personal or even collective action, many people seem resigned to the crisis.
Yet, this resignation must be a pool of potential support for any reform movements that might emerge, whether these might be within formal (party) politics, or outside of it, aimed at gradual reform or at more rapid change.
The formal and legal situation is such that collective action is quite possible, of course. Rights to association, protest and participation in the political process continue to be in place. Even when some people may be wary of taking action for fear repercussions from powerful actors or out of a sense of resignation, they do have the formal opportunities to organize.
[See what I did there in my optimism?]