Genuine Protests or Political Grandstanding

By Julian Dierkes

A group of MPs is clearly trying to mobilize against M Enkhbold through the organization of public protests. We saw such protests at the ever end of 2018, but they have been announced for January 10 as well with the possibility of parallel protests across aimag capitals.

MP Lu Bold is among the most active organizers of these protests.

For many Mongolians, these protests seem to raise the question of whether they are “paid for” or somehow genuine and the default answer to this question seems to have become that these are opportunistic protests organized for particular political goals associated with individuals, not with a larger reform of political culture/processes. But how would we know?

Corruption, Conspiracies, and Protesters for Hire

In conversations about politics with Mongolians, conspiracy theories are almost the default, whether that is with individual voters, or with politically-powerful individuals. This, along with and as a cause of a general political apathy is preventing Mongolians from acting on the political frustration that has been building up over the past couple of years. Given the level of frustration, I do think that real change is coming to Mongolia over the long-term, but there are many different imaginable ways by which change could be brought about. Since protests are an obvious path to change, I think it is important to consider how we might evaluate protests when they do occur.

Given wide-spread suspicions about the importance of money in all things political, many Mongolians seem to look at protests through a lense of suspicion regarding the motivation of protesters, frequently asserting that many protesters are paid to protest, and thus may have no loyalty to the cause that they may be protesting for.

Paid Protests Possible?

One of the first questions that occurs to me in that context is: could individuals/groups actually organize large-scale protests by hiring protesters? I think the answer is probably yes.

I have not been able to get very concrete information on what the going rate to hire a protester is, but guesses seem to come in around ₮10,000 or so. Assuming that a crowd of at least 5,000 is needed to make protests seem significant that would suggest a required budget of ₮10,000 * 5,000 = ₮50,000,000 or around US$20,000. Certainly within the realm of the possible when there are wealthy organizers involved, though this calculation disregards the additional and potentially substantial costs that are required to maintain structures that can be used to organize protests, including logistics as I mention below.

Indicators of Paid-For Protests

So, what might be some possible indicators to identify paid-for protests?

Protests Logistics

In conversations with Mendee, we have come up with some specific aspects of demonstrations that we could look for that would indicate that these protests are orchestrated:

  • is there evidence of transportation being provided to demonstrators? Protesters who are devoted to the cause of a protest would likely organize their own transportation a protest, while transportation is likely to be provided for those who are paid to participate. Obviously, this factor is even more salient in winter-time protests when few people are going to walk a great distance for a protest. So, evidence of staged protests might come in the form of buses and minivans that can be observed dropping significant numbers of people off near a protest site.
  • is there evidence of meals being provided to demonstrators? Again, those who are paid to demonstrate might expect a meal to be provided when demonstrations might last over several hours, especially over lunch-time. So, evidence of food being handed out to demonstrators? [cold weather factor – are there any warm places/buses/ provided? protestors are taking turns to escape from the cold weather?]
  • what do signs look like that protesters are carrying? Are these largely hand-written even when they copy general slogans that have been given out or have appeared in social media for protests? Or, are they printed, with some evidence of mass production?

Obviously, all of these indicators can be faked, i.e. you could pay someone an additional fee to paint their own signs, but let’s hope that protest managers do not read our blog, so that they will not adjust their strategies accordingly.

Actors Involved

Clearly, currently active and powerful politicians are immediately “suspicious” in terms of the genuineness of their protests. For example, MP J Batzandan is clearly involved in the planning of Jan 10 protests, but he has been involved in many, many protests over the years, including the July 1 2008 riots. It will be hard to persuade many Mongolians that his involvement in protests is not motivated by some kind of political play rather than being genuine in its anti-corruption thrust, for example. The same could be said for Lu Bold as another prominent organizer of the Jan 10 protests.

On the other hand, there are some actors that would have more credibility if they got involved in protests, particularly individuals or groups who have previously not participated in party politics. By political actors I mean both, individuals, as well as parties or other movements. With their recent resurgence in prominence, for example, if the Monoglian Labour Party (XUH) joined a particular protest, that would likely add credibility of a genuine dedication an issue, at least at the moment.

At the same time, there are also participants in demonstrations that are a “kiss of death” for further involvement, like the various extremist and nationalist group who seem to be making it their habit to join protests.

Crowd Composition

Whether or not a large part of the protesting crowd might be composed of paid protesters might be clear by looking for certain groups like the elderly or students who are more likely to be attracted to payment for daytime protests than working age Mongolians, for example.

Some of that crowd composition may be visible on photographs, but the best evidence in this regard would probably come from observers/journalists walking through the crowd to pick up on different groupings or the mood and conversations going on.

Beyond the prominent of a particular group, more genuine protests can also be expected to attract a wider variety of participants, not only pensioners, but pensioners AND parents, or young people AND individuals from the countryside.

Resiliency/Sustainability of Protests

Another criteria to judge protests and protest movements by would be to look for some kind of sustained engagement. Not only would repeated hiring of protesters get expensive, even by the very simple guestimate we offered above, but if repeated events continue to attract crowds, it would seem like there is more genuine involvement in the topic that they’r protesting. With the announcement of nation-wide protests for January 10, we might also include the spreading of coordinated protests as a criterion.

Not Quite a Checklist

While this does not quite give us a list of criteria by which to distinguish genuine from politically opportunistic protests, these are some of the aspects will be looking for in coming demonstrations.

And, whether or not a specific protest is genuine or staged, any large protest surely creates opportunities for more mobilization and for new political actors, voices or leaders to emerge.

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
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