By Mendee Jargalsaikhan
Mongolia will be the second northeast Asian country to conduct a parliamentary election amidst the current pandemic following South Korea. Learning from my Korean colleagues, the South Korean parliamentary election was successful with the highest voter turnout for a parliamentary election since 1996. But, we can easily imagine how hard it was for organizers who were thinking of all worst-case scenarios and preparing for each. Here is an excellent article, written by my colleague Dongwoo Kim.
Elections in South Korea
Since South Korea has been dealing with the community spread of the virus, voters were divided into three categories and voted separately. The first category includes those with confirmed and suspected patients with COVID-19. 13,642 out of 59, 918 voters in this category casted their vote in advance between March 24 and 28. The second category voters are those in self-quarantine: recent travellers and those recovered from the virus. They voted within a specific timeframe at the designated polling stations. The third category refers to all other voters. All voters are required to keep one-meter distance, wear masks, have the temperature checked, and wear gloves. If one shows fever, he/she would be escorted by people with space suites (PPEs) to a secluded, covered booth. Because of the pandemic, South Korea suspended overseas voting, which is relevant to over 86,000 voters living abroad. Although it is hard to compare South Korea and Mongolia, there are some valuable lessons. One is the clear designation, empowerment of the lead agency – which needs to be under the control of politically-neutral, professionals. In South Korean case, the National Elections Commission (NEC) was in control. The second is clear, immediate communication with voters. This certainly increases the trust and participation of voters. The third is the respect and obey the law, especially political leaders, parties, and all candidates; otherwise, there are always possibility to politicize anything. In South Korea, all obeyed the country’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act as well as safety rules and regulations set and updated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korean Centres of Disease Control.
A Perfect Election Day on June 24 in Mongolia
Let’s imagine a perfect election day. On sunny morning, quarter to 7 am, elders dressed up as usual lining up near the polling stations while waiting for election officials make the final check. A young election worker is kindly reminding them keeping 1.5 metre distance and wearing masks. Some nod, while all want to chat. As day reaches the typical June average temperature (22-25°), refreshing breeze travels around and light intermittent drizzles cool down a bit frustrated voters from standing on long, slow-advancing queues outside the polling stations. Kids are playing around joyfully and enjoying their treats (esp., ice cream cones). But, elders are still rumouring in the shadows and never stopping to ask if voted, to whom voted for, and whom should vote for.
As election workers start feeling their tiredness by the evening, young voters are crowding the polling stations. Many don’t even listen to election workers’ reminder of safe distancing, wearing masks, and hand sanitizing, but a few youth easily get lost inside and start asking how to vote. By late evening, around 9-ish, a live counting from the General Election Commission becomes the most favourite show for all adults. That annoys toddlers and kids – who used to control the TVs. News channels report about some trouble-makers especially around these hours as many showed up just before the closing of the stations at 10 pm. By midnight, people were still staring the live broadcast, however, some decided to hear the final results – of very remote soums of Bayan Ulgii province in the morning. But, for parties, candidates, and close supporters, a day is just starting. Winners begin their victory parties, losers drink and strategize how to reject the results. In contrast, poorly paid election workers, over 9,000 public servants, plus those assigned (IT folks, police, now doctors and emergency crews) are still wondering if their stations are included in the manual counting (50 percent). If it is included, they need to spend extra hours to recount.
To make this perfect day, three things must happen: (1) party leaders refrain making any victory statements until the GEC reports the final results, (2) candidates hold their temptations of cheating or causing chaos, and, (3) the emergency responders of the National Centre of Communicable Diseases receive a few manageable calls.
For sure, the General Election Commission and all public servants assigned for the election will make their best to conduct a successful election amidst of the pandemic outbreak. But, they face two major challenges to maintain the public trust.
First, the coronavirus is beyond their control; therefore, the situation can change immediately and only medical and emergency professionals know how to respond. Unlike South Korea, key decision-making powers of the State Emergency Commission and lead agency will remain under the ruling party officials. Even the ruling party puts true professionals in charge, many could easily suspect of politicization of the pandemic. Second, the rule of law is not truly independent at the moment. The practice of arresting and giving court dates prior to elections become normal process for a long time and becomes very complicated for ordinary people to comprehend. Given these circumstances of low trust, the only way for the GEC to defend their hard work is to have a joint team of Mongolian and international observers.
The Golden Opportunity for the Joint Observation Mission
Since 2013, Mongolia, as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), invited international observers. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a specialized election monitoring body of the OSCE, deployed long and short-term observers along with Mongolian local staffs for all elections. This year, the ODIHR, couldn’t send their Election Observation Mission.
This prompts leaders of the General Election Commission (GEC) to ask around foreign embassies in Ulaanbaatar to observe the elections. For example, requests have made to the US Ambassador and UK Deputy Chief of Mission. Not surprisingly, GEC leaders are not so eager to permit Mongolian observers (e.g., Шударга сонгуулийн төлөө иргэний нийгмийн хяналт сүлжээ). This creates a golden opportunity for foreign embassies, international organizations, and Mongolian observers to work together to fill the gap of the OSCE to be neutral, fair observers for the work of the GEC amidst of pandemic fear and low trust in judiciary and law enforcement organizations. This is mutually beneficial for all parties.
For foreign diplomats, especially those from the OCED, EU, and OSCE member countries, they are “stuck” in Mongolia until June 30. All have tasks of observing the political, social, and economic developments in Mongolia, keen interests of learning more about people, and have invaluable international experience to compare. It is quite easy to get organized in a short period of time since all embassies are well-settled and have logistics to support in-country travel. Moreover, June is the perfect timing for touring around the country. However, most diplomats lack the technical expertise and somewhat background knowledge of Mongolian elections and the dynamics.
Here is the Network of Civil Society Organizations for Just Election (Шударга сонгуулийн төлөө иргэний нийгмийн хяналт сүлжээ) is a reliable local partner. It is evolved as a primary platform for encouraging youth to observe the electoral process (from law-making, to running, and to counting the results) and become critical voters. Starting from 2008 elections, the network has made contributions to improve the electoral process by pointing out deficiencies with facts and evidence. Instead of criticizing the lack of youth participation in the elections, the network dedicated time and resources for young observers (over 100 per election) to make contributions by understanding the importance of elections and participating in the implementation process. Therefore, the network would complement the missing part of electoral technicality and share their long-accumulated expertise with foreign diplomats.
This type of joint observation mission would make the GEC’s job easier. In addition to their enormous tasks of running the elections amidst of pandemic, they also need to accommodate requests of multiple international and local observers. If embassies and local civil society observers are get organized, this would make communications with the GEC less complicated and avoid from all potential complaints and mis-understanding involving foreign diplomats and observers. In fact, a joint statement of local and international observers would sound stronger and trust-worthier than random statements or tweets by diplomats. At the end, the joint observation mission would empower the civil society – esp., young observers and could make a fair defence for the GEC.