By Julian Dierkes
Why I am generally optimistic about Mongolian developments, Mongolian politics presents a lot of challenges and the current state of affairs causes more despair than it has in the previous 12+ years that I’ve been paying attention.
The recent SME Fund corruption scandal mobilized a lot of protest online, but did not lead to large scale demonstrations. Neither did the dismissal of УИХ speaker M Enkhbold, or legislative changes to judicial appointments.
Posts in this series so far:
- Over the past two years, I see Mongolians as increasingly frustrated with the state of (party) politics, yet remaining dedicated to democracy
- This frustration is coupled with apathy that will likely require events to produce a protest movement
- Mendee is pretty sure that protests would not become violent
- While there will be attempts to create soft authoritarian governments during crisis movements, these will not succeed.
Now, let me consider the rebirth of political parties and thus the party system that will further institutionalize democracy in Mongolia.
A Process Toward Political Renewal
My guess is that political renewal might come either from within the powerful parties (unlikely in the medium term, unclear in the long term), revolution (always risky in terms of outcomes, unlikely in the short, medium and long term) or new political forces (attempts at establishment very likely in medium term, success less clear).
MAHAH: The Foggy Old Parties
Judging by the past several years, the two large parties appear to be unable to reform themselves. Corruption has become systemic, brief spurts of attempts to define a policy platform that would distinguish one party from the other, flounder, the leadership of both parties sees little turnover. Recently, Damdinnyam and I pointed to the various ways in which both parties have been involved in the long-term corruption of the political system. The Democratic Party seems paralyzed by the combination of the failures of its time in government until 2016, a lack of turnover in its leadership, and the apparent division between the party and its highest elected official, Pres Battulga (who, of course, formally is no longer a party member). PM Khurelsukh seems to have won the power struggle against Enkhbold’s “city” faction, but that has been just that, a power struggle, not a movement for renewal or reform, or any political substance.
The inability to reform themselves seems deeply embedded in both MAHAH parties, and there are real structural obstacles to reform, particularly around patronage relations and factions that have emerged over many years now. While party schisms are constantly a threat, even more so for the divided DP than the MPP, ultimately, few actors really want to spin off from the two parties as they offer significant political resources and infrastructure. This is what gives MAHAH its staying power.
Yet, there is always a chance that some actors within the two dominant parties see political opportunities in widespread dissatisfaction with the parties. Anyone who can make a credible case for real reform or, sadly, anyone who can appear to be making a credible case probably has a chance to rally some discontent around him- or herself to build a power base within either party. In the contest of demonstrations, I have asked how we might recognize genuine vs. paid-for protests; this would be no easier in the case of party reform.
The political opportunities associated with discontent do hold the possibility of real and maybe even radical party reform in the long term.
What are the chances that protests somehow build up into some kind of gentle revolution, leading to a radical shift, for example through a constitutional assembly or something like that? Low, I think.
To be sure, I think that the chances that we’ll see a violent revolution of sorts are very low, fortunately. The military or any other formal elements of the security apparatus are extremely unlikely to get themselves involved. We have seen almost no history of political violence in Mongolia with some exceptions like the murder of S Zorig in 1998, the violent protests following the 2008 parliamentary election, or the death of L Bolormaa in 2015.
But Mongolia’s most recent revolution, in 1989/90 was also not violent yet it led to a radical change in the political system from one-party state-socialism to a multi-party democracy. So could there be another gentle revolution to reform democracy?
And, obviously, any kind of radical change like a non-violent revolution bears a lot of risks in terms of what outcomes might come from it. In Mongolia’s current situation, almost the whole spectrum of outcomes seems possible, from some kind of authoritarian rule to a renewed democracy.
There are a lot of doubts among Mongolias regarding the chances of new political actors establishing themselves. Most of these doubts focus on the low chances a new actor might have in elections.
Dilemma of choice and unfamiliarity. When there is more options to choose, having to choose becomes more difficult. & if all you know about political parties are corruption and misconduct, then why would you choose third party that could be the same but would bonus — unfamiliar?
— Anand Tumurtogoo (@AnandDairtan) April 19, 2019
Some Barriers to New Parties
As a democracy, of course, the Mongolian political system is principally open to the formation of new parties. There are some practical hurdles in terms of the registration of a new party, but these are practical hurdles only, not principle obstacles.
Election campaigns have long been seen to be very expensive, mainly for the advertising costs they incur. Frankly, this has been a bit of a mystery to me, as a well-organized grass-roots effort relying on social media would likely have a decent chance at gaining some traction, given the level of online participation, certainly in Ulaanbaatar and other towns. Generally, however, most observers guess that new parties would have a very hard time raising the funds necessary to campaign. A reform of party finance has been proposed as part of new party legislation, but seems very unlikely in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Media ownership by political actors is a feature that has been worrisome in past elections. For the chances of a new political actor, this is a significant aspect as the absence of media ownership might give such a new actor a significant disadvantage in mobilizing voters.
In past elections, Mongolians have experimented with a number of different electoral systems, most of them majoritarian in some form or another. While there are lots of discussions of different electoral systems, the election law has generally been passed at the very last moment and not benefitted from much public discussion. From my perspective, many Mongolians also attach way too much significance to that choice (as to the choice of parliamentary vs presidential systems generally), as many electoral systems work in terms of translating voters’ desires into a government, though different systems have different advantages or less attractive aspects. Majoritarian systems do make it difficult for new parties to gain a foothold, certainly in a single electoral cycle.