By Julian Dierkes
One of the great puzzles of the Mongolian electoral system choice of multi-member pluralities is how to run a strategic campaign for a party. If I imagined myself to be a campaign operator, what would I do?
Some of the questions I would ask is:
- For the party, winning a majority is clearly a priority, but for a candidate, s/he will prioritize winning the seat they’re running for.
- How does the party prioritize campaign resources between districts? What about candidates in the same district, especially in the case of the MPP and DP which are running full slates of 76 candidates, but even for the New Coalition and Our Coalition which are running nearly full slates.
- Do you prioritize national campaign themes by the extent to which they play in certain districts, perhaps districts that you have classified as winnable?
- What does winnable mean in that case? A sweep of a given district?
Such strategic calculations are of particular interest when comparing the two established parties, the DP and MPP. As always, the MPP is assumed to have more of a central party infrastructure. This is reinforced by the sense that the list of candidates nominated for the MPP looks largely like a list chosen by PM Khurelsukh, thus asserting his control of the party as party chair. The early impression of the MPP campaign online reinforces the impression that this is a campaign that has some elements of being centrally run for the MPP. By contrast, the DP is less visible online, party chair S Erdene does not seem to be campaigning with candidates in districts as visibly as Khurelsukh, suggesting a less centrally-controlled campaign.
Under party chair S Erdene, the DP has struggled with internal schisms, especially the spin-off New Party under former DP MPs Lu Bold and J Batzandan. Other prominent former DP leaders have decided to run as independents, for example, former PM N Altankhuyag running in Erdenet. So, the DP looks fractious overall.
There are two strategic decisions that the DP has made that may provide an example of trying to think through what party strategy might look like under this electoral system.
R Amarjargal as Shadow Prime Minister
On June 15, party chair S Erdene announced that R Amarjargal would be prime minister under a DP majority. As that majority seems fairly unlikely by all observers’ accounts, this must be largely a campaign move aimed at increasing voter share.
Recently, party chair Erdene re-tweeted this seemingly innocuous tweet by Amarjargal:
— Amarjargal (@AmarjargalR) June 2, 2020
He following this up with the following on June 15:
Монголын Улсын төлөө гэсэн сэтгэл миний туулсан, цаашид туулах замын луужин байсан, байх ч болно. Үзэл санаа, үнэт зүйл нэгт анд Р.Амаржаргалыгаа ч бас эрх ашгийн эрэмбээ алдахгүй ажиллаж бидний зорилгыг биелүүлнэ гэдэгт итгэж байна. pic.twitter.com/66OBJcNatD
— С.Эрдэнэ (@serdenemn) June 15, 2020
Who is Amarjargal? Born in 1961, he was educated in the Soviet Union as an economist, an education he reinforced with a Master’s in the UK. He joined the democratic movement early on [from the start – as a leader of the economist group, which became the Mongolian New Progressive Party in 1990 and merged with the DP in 1992]. He was elected to parliament in 1996 and played a prominent role in that session dominated by the turbulent succession of various governments led by forces that later merged to form the DP. He served as Prime Minister at the end of that parliament from summer 1999 until the electoral defeat in 2000. Despite his role in the merger to form the DP, he has been at odds with the party at various times. He was thus re-elected to parliament as an independent in 2004. He won election in 2008 and 2012, but stepped aside as a candidate in 2016, ostensibly to make room for more women to run. He had also been a contender for the nomination as a presidential candidate for the DP in 2017.
He has been continuously visible in the public and styles himself somewhat of a gadfly to the DP establishment, pointing to his economist credentials as a source of legitimacy. It thus certainly surprised me that he chose to let himself be nominated for the DP in this election, and in the very competitive Sukhbaatar district of Ulaanbaatar no less where he is competing with 37 other candidates for three seats. Those candidates include:
- For the MPP: current Foreign Minister D Tsogtbaatar, former Foreign Minister Ts Munkh-Orgil and Ts Munkhtsetseg, a prominent political scientist who teaches at the Mongolian State Univ of Education.
- For the DP in addition to Amarjargal: S Erdenebold and E Dolgion
- Other parties and coalitions have also nominated somewhat prominent candidates for this riding.
The announcement by the DP surely bolsters Amargjargal chances at being elected from this fray of candidates in the city centre of Ulaanbaatar. In terms of experience, he certainly has much to offer (past Foreign Minister, past Prime Minister) even compared to the MPP candidates.
But, presumably, this announcement was made to benefit the DP at large, not just to bolster Amarjargal’s campaign. Of course, he might have insisted on this nomination in any kind of negotiation about his candidacy he might have had with party chair Erdene, but we will not know about that. Perhaps it is more likely that Erdene and DP general secretary Baatarkhuu actively recruited Amarjargal. That nomination could also hold if Amarjargal does not win his seat in the election as a prime minister does not have to be an MP, as has been the case with MPP party chair Khurelsukh (see below for some of the dynamics of his candidacy).
So, what is the electoral calculus here? Given Amarjargal’s reputation as staying above the DP’s factional fights and thus as a bit of an outsider to the DP establishment is the hope that his nomination takes the DP out of the MAHAH-perception of a corrupt duopoly of power? But under what condition will that sway a voter in a different electoral district? That of course is the fundamental challenge to a party campaign in a majoritarian electoral system, only compounded by the multi-member aspect.
So, let us assume a neighbouring district like Songinokhairkhan in Ulaanbaatar where the DP might be in contention. Take District 27, two seats to be elected. The DP candidates here are Kyokushuzan and B Punsalmaa. For the announcement of Amarjargal to make sense as a party campaign move, there must be the assumption that some voters are more likely to vote for DP candidates like Kyokushuzan or Punsalmaa than they would have been without this announcement? I suppose as long as there is some certainty or at least a greater likelihood that this announcement at least does no harm with voters, than any slight edge could be an asset, especially in the urban districts where the votes might be split so many ways and total number of votes at the margin might decide over many seats. Perhaps we will know a bit more about the party strategy by watching whether Amarjargal will be campaigning for other candidates in the remaining days of the campaign.
While Khurelsukh may be campaigning primarily on the past effectiveness of his government, Amarjargal as a designated candidate for Prime Minister is probably much more competitive in this regard than many of the DP grandees otherwise. Some voices have called for an election debate between Khurelsukh and Amarjargal which would be fascinating to see as they may try to portray themselves with comparable credentials. An interesting side note to that is that Amarjargal was Khurelsukh’s economics professor at the Military Academy.
This is how a DP supporter sees Amarjargal as a challenger to Khurelsukh as well:
Бодлого ялах уу? & Булчин ялах уу?
Сонголт таных ✅@AmarjargalR @UKhurelsukh pic.twitter.com/Kxrz1998wF
— Батука (@Batuka_UB) June 16, 2020
Bat-Uul as Challenger to Khurelsukh
E Bat-Uul is one of the remaining “golden swallows”, the original democracy activists who were involved in the revolution in the winter of 1989/90. As such he was awarded his status as Hero of Mongolia on the 30th anniversary of the revolution by then-Pres. Elbegdorj. I remember this particularly vividly as I happened to be at a gathering of democratic partisans as a guest on the evening of the ceremony. Bat-Uul joined the event and was feted like a true Hero of Mongolia. He was elected as a DP member of parliament in 1996, 2004, and 2008 and served as mayor of Ulaanbaatar from 2012 to 2016. The only blemish on this political resume is that his son, Chuluudai, was named in the 2016 Panama Papers (something he shares with the above-mentioned Kyokushuzan). It was a bit of a surprise that he was interested in being nominated by the DP in this parliamentary election since he had been at odds with parts of the DP leadership for some time. The greater surprise yet, was that he was nominated for Khentii (electoral district 18) where he will be facing off against the formidable MPP triumvirate of PM U Khurelsukh (previously not an MP), his Cabinet Secretary L Oyun-Erdene, and former presidential candidate (2013) B Bat-Erdene.
Maybe he was itching for a political showdown? I cannot imagine that he thought that election in Khentii would be easy. Yes, Khentii has been a stronghold for the DP in the past. And, Bat-Uul’s father, Erdene, was a prominent writer from Binder, Khentii, particularly well-respected among Buriats and Mongols. But, will this add up to a chance against these candidates?
I have to admit that I know little about the other two DP candidates, J Oyunbaatar, and T Purevkhatan. But, for the DP, even threatening PM Khurelsukh’s election has to be a strategic goal. And the number of DP members who would at least have a chance at threatening Khurelsukh or the other two MPP candidates is probably quite limited.
In contrast to Amarjargal, Bat-Uul’s nomination in Khentii may carry less significance for “neighbouring” candidates, but that as well will be a bit clearer if we see him supporting other candidates in the election.
Note that I am simply trying to puzzle out some strategic choices from an informed outsider’s perspective, I do not have any specific insider information on either of the decisions above and suspect that most DP movers and shakers would point to several different aspects of my musings that seem uninformed and wrong to them.