By Julian Dierkes
Yes, the 2020 election is more than a year away, and, yes, many observers lament the fact that politics seems beholden to electoral cycles. But, discussions in Mongolia have started to revolve around the 2020 election, and I have already been asked to provide an outlook, so I want to provide some thematic notes that are obviously highly speculative in nature.
Here are some of the questions that I think will loom large in the election.
A (Re)Commitment to Democracy
Elections are fundamentally democratic structures, events, and activities. Given fears about a backsliding from democracy in Spring 2019, many electoral activities will be closely watched as to the integrity of various processes. For this, decisions about the electoral system itself will be crucial. By law, the electoral system has to be set in place six months before the election. In past practice, this has meant last minute passage of an election law at the end of December, an unfortunate habit that would be good to combat, but realistically I am not expecting anything different from this upcoming cycle.
Will it be a purely majoritarian election system again? Will the MPP put in place restrictions on new/small parties or on independents? Obviously, that will have a significant impact on the election results in terms of the performance of smaller parties and independents.
While a split seemed to be looming this past winter over the battle between the “City” faction of M Enkhbold and U Khurelsukh and others, this seems to have been avoided through an assertion of control by PM Khurelsukh and his allies. Any talk of a re-merger with the MPRP for the MPP or splinters thereof also seem to have been dropped from the agenda. It looks like a relatively calm election campaign coming up for the MPP.
The DP seems in fratricidal decline, particularly with the rift that has emerged in parliament over Lu Bold and his allies’ departure from the party caucus and vows to contest the election as a separate party. It seems unclear what this spin-off is aiming at in political terms (beyond getting elected, perhaps), and so unclear what this might mean for coalitions that could emerge from various results.
Will the election bring a return of former president Ts Elbegdorj to active politics? Presumably, his chances in any kind of direct election would be good, but he might also increase divisions within the party further.
If small and new parties and independents will be allowed to compete fairly freely, what impact will they have?
It seems likely that former president N Enkhbayar will, once again, assert himself and perhaps he will ultimately be allowed to stand as a candidate. If he is, than he seems likely to win a seat in most electoral system configurations. It’s unclear to me what this will mean for other MPRP candidates in the party.
At the height of the SME Fund scandal, it seemed like the National Labour Party was gaining a lot of attention, but half a year later this doesn’t seem to have translated into any big political momentum. It seems like ХҮН will be hampered by any restrictions the MPP and the General Election Commission dominated by the MPP might devise, but it will also be unlikely to meet with any significant success if its ambition is restricted to election into a few, most likely very few seats, depending on star candidates that might be victorious in a majoritarian riding.
Who will Nominate Pres Battulga?
Pres Battulga will surely want to run for president again in 2021. To do so, he will have to be nominated by a party represented in parliament. His relations with the DP leadership do not seem very close and will be further strained if former president Elbegdorj decides to return to active politics. The MPP is also unlikely to nominate him for re-election, so he will be looking for a vehicle for his nomination and will likely throw his support behind that vehicle.
Any Chance at Substantive Debates?
Notice that I’ve already raised a number of questions, but have said nothing about policy or campaign platforms. This remains the big empty hole at the centre of Mongolian democracy. It would be quite surprising to see any real and principled debate appear in the election.
There may be some specific issues that will be raised, especially in a fashion to pander to popular opinions, but these will not aggregate to any kind of principled debates. Some issues that seem likely to come up:
- Tavan Tolgoi, though it strikes me as very unlikely that the IPO will actually proceed before the election.
- Corruption, but most likely as the time-proven mutual accusation and finger-pointing game.
- State funds, other than the SME Fund, perhaps.
- Air pollution, though interest will wane again in late Spring.
- I don’t see that any deeper debates about employment generation will emerge, beyond the usual claims that all candidates will generate jobs.
In the past, voters have tended to swing away from the party that had dominated previous elections. This is part of the reasons for Pres. Battulga’s 2017 victory over M Enkhbold, but a similar pattern prevailed in earlier elections as well. For 2020 it is not clear yet that the DP will present a viable alternative. Not only did its previous government throw they country into a bit of a fiscal mess, but it might just continue its slow-motion implosion and simply not appear as a credible alternative.
The sense of the DP as not presenting a viable alternative might be heightened by the MPP’s legitimate claim at reasonably competent management of political issues over the past four years. Not that any of the real challenges (corruption, air pollution, country-side development strategies, etc.) have been addressed, but management of government has been somewhat successful. There are even some ministers that have lent an air of competency to the government. This is true for Finance Minister Ch Khurelbaatar who has brought some fiscal discipline to the government. More surprisingly, it’s also true for Minister of Mining D Sumiyabazar. While his appointment led to some doubts (“a former wrestler for the very important mining portfolio?”) and even mockery, he seems to have genuinely thrown himself into embracing his role as a minister, has been focused in his public appearances and has been dedicated in his service.
Given the lack of substantive competition between the main parties, the election result currently would look to be relatively irrelevant in understanding how policy-making might develop. There are no specific expectations that a DP-dominated government – should that turn out to be possible – would change direction on specific topics. Yes, personnel will be rotated and institutional knowledge will – once again – be lost, but no radical reorientation would be expected as it also has not occurred in previous changes of government.
More issues will surely arise, possibly in the context of the Khentii by-election. We will certainly try to keep up-to-date on these developments.