By Julian Dierkes and Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg
The Mongolian Parliament has passed a number of constitutional amendments on November 14, 2019. Elements of this constitutional reform had been discussed by many political parties and politicians for the last twenty years.
Among the recently passed constitutional amendments is a provision that requires a minimum threshold of 1% of eligible voters to support a party to be registered to compete in elections. This is one of the amendments that may have far-reaching implications and it also seems to undermine some fundamental civic rights (assembly, political participation), albeit in a relatively mild way.
In the beginning of 2017, the Working Group on Constitutional Amendments began discussing the appropriateness of incorporating some party-related provisions in the Constitution that would support party maturation through internal democracy and transparency of political parties. But these discussions never focused on a party membership requirement.
When discussions got more concrete in summer of 2019, parliament considered a draft of in three phases of parliamentary and public discussions from June 6 to November 14, 2019. The first draft of the amendments did not include a provision for a party membership requirement.
But, President Battulga submitted his draft of amendments before the second constitutional debate on July 16, 2019. His draft contained one article requiring at least 50,001 citizens to join together to register a political party.
During the second discussion of the amendments, DP MPs suggested that political party registration would require at least 1 percent of citizens. The MPP offered a proposal that parties shall be established by at least one percent of eligible voters joining together. This is the condition that was passed on Nov 14, 2019.
At the moment, newly forming parties have to have the party (name) registered with the Supreme Court. That has been perceived as a politicized decision in the past, leading to some friction, for example around the “re-invention” of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. It is also the reason why the XYH party that formed as a hopeful new force in 2016, took the shell of a pre-existing party, the National Labour Party, rather than registering a new party.
Currently, there are 35 registered parties. Six of those have a membership that would appear to exceed the 1% threshold of voters (approx. 21,000):
- MPP 163,500 members
- DP 150,000 members
- MPRP 35,000 members
- Civil Will Green Party 35,000 members
- Republican Party (Монголын Бүгд Найрамдах Нам) 50,000 members.
- Motherland Party (Эх орон нам) 150,000 members.
Other 29 political parties have less than 21,000 members.
Article 191.2 in the newly amended constitution will read: “A political group who make up a minimum of 1% of Mongolian citizens who reached election age can establish a political party.” (Unofficial translation circulating)
The fate of independent political candidates under this system is unclear as it would be – presumably – specified by future election laws.
This provision (unlike other constitutional amendments) is specified to take effect as of January 1 2028, i.e. for the 2028 parliamentary election. It remains unclear whether parties registered already, or registered before December 31 2027 would be exempt from this requirement, i.e. “grandfathered”.
Proponents of the amendment have made the case for it on the basis of avoiding political chaos. This is a familiar argument in discussions of democracy, it is certainly a familiar argument to a German like me (JD) as the multitude of parties is often cited as one of the fatal faults of the Weimar Republic.
MP Byambatsogt S, who is chair or State Committee Standing Committee of Parliament was one of the most vocal proponents of this provision. He referred to political parties “popping up like mushrooms after a rain shower” (“Өнөөдөр бол борооны дараах мөөг шиг олон нам байгуулагдаж байна.“) implying that they were too numerous. While a requirement of 50,001 citizens seemed overly rigid, 1% of the electorate seemed appropriate to him.
This argument often focuses on the inability of parliament to act when coalitions of multiple parties are unstable. There is also a suspicion that a large number of parties potentially leads to political polarization.
We think that this amendment is anti-democratic and unnecessarily curtails the civil rights of Mongolian voters.
- Party registration is not representation in parliament. The number of parties that are registered and thus potentially running in elections is not directly related to the number of parties represented in parliament. A voters do not vote for that many parties; B most democracies (including Mongolia’s past elections) specify various minimum thresholds for election.
- Why? What is the harm (to democracy or in practical terms) of many registered parties? If you and I (imagining JD as a Mongolia voter and both of us as more handsome and/or charismatic) find that we agree on a goal or an agenda for government policy, why should we not be allowed to form a party to see whether we can gather enough like-minded people?
- The amendment is aimed at and fundamentally preserves the status quo, by freezing the current party landscape. There is no particular democratic argument to preserve the status quo that we are aware of.
- Party registration already has been a difficult issue in the past, often becoming politicized at the level of the Supreme Court where registration happens.
- When this requirement takes effect it will become more difficult to establish political parties, but why should voters in the future not enjoy the same ease in establishing political parties that current voters do?
Mongolian political scientists have largely tacitly accepted this amendment, perhaps because it is seen as supporting current office holders/parties and it is not always easy to speak out against governing powers.
In several workshops that we have been involved in, we have found that when describing a political party system from scratch, Mongolians often describe a “National Unity Party” of some kind. The agenda for that party is then described as “doing the best” or “doing the right thing” for the nation. This is a conceptualization of the role of political parties that seems to misunderstand the role of political deliberation and elections. Elections offer an opportunity for voters to participate in decisions about the future path of the country when these decisions involve value choices, i.e. when there is no one best solution to a given question. Currently, political parties do not offer such consistent value choices or ideologies and more parties thus seem to equal more chaos and disagreement.
- Minor parties do not have enough information about Constitutional Amendments.
- Third parties (MPRP, MNDP and some) want this provision of Constitution, which is an interest in becoming a powerful party integrate small parties.
The 2028 date-of-effect leaves a lot of room for political mobilization around this issue until then, through four cycles of elections (UIX 2020, president 2021, UIX 2024, president 2027) which may drive perceptions of the role of new or rising parties.
Dr. Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg is a political scientist and the senior lecturer of political science at MNUE, Ulaanbaatar. I had managed Election project of UNDP, Mongolia and have been studying political party, electoral system, women’s participation and democratization in Mongolia since 2000.