By Julian Dierkes
Over 30 years of Mongolia’s democratic history we have seen a lot of surprising developments. By comparison, recent months seemed relatively calm. The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) cruised to a first-ever consecutive election victory, seemingly on the strength of Prime Minster U Khurelsukh’s fight against urban air pollution and its management of the COVID response. For the election, Khurelsukh managed to shunt some party opposition aside and replace them with a list of younger new candidates, many of whom entered parliament. It seemed like this course would continue for Khurelsukh to a nomination as the MPP’s presidential candidate in the upcoming (June 2021) election. Given Khurelsukh’s managerial success and lack of political vision, the more ceremonial office of the president seemed to be an obvious destination for him. So, all relatively calm. Then Khurelsukh resigned as Prime Minister and his resignation was accepted by parliament. WOT?
Mongolian prime minister submits resignation after COVID-19 protests https://t.co/fwNa8y2ldz
— Anand Tumurtogoo (@AnandDairtan) January 21, 2021
Here is my sense of the sequence of events and some speculation around these events.
I first heard about the protests from a contact who was delighted to see them and described them as “a very natural organic protest by youth under 25”. Genuine outrage about the heinous treatment of a young mother and COVID patient who had just given birth. Clearly, that protest built up to a broader expression of dissatisfaction with some aspects of the COVID response, but also broader issues around press freedom, etc. L Bolor has described these protests and the issues that have come up well in her piece for The Diplomat. See the #УОКогцор hashtag for some online versions of these protests. It is a little less clear whether initial protesters were not joined later by more organized participants.
To me, it seems clear that these protests were not somehow devilishly orchestrated or planned from what I have heard from contacts and what Bolor has written.
— Dolgion Aldar (@Dolgiona) January 20, 2021
But it also seems clear that the single case of this patient, as inhumane as her treatment was, should not really bring down a government. It would have seemed more appropriate for a hospital administrator to resign, or perhaps someone, maybe even the Minister, within the Ministry of Health. But the Prime Minister?
But he did resign. And he did so, taking a swipe at Pres. Battulga, accusing him of undermining national unity. Given the reported nature of the protests, that accusation seems a bit rich. Sure, Pres. Battulga is driven by political schemes in his actions, I would argue, as is evident in the complete lack of a substantive agenda to his presidency. One might think only of his (now abandoned?) push for the reinstatement of capital punishment as an example of his willingness to create populist fervour for issues he grabs onto without that actually being part of any kind of coherent agenda. And sure, Pres. Battulga seems intent on running for re-election despite the ambiguity in constitutional amendments regarding his ability to do so and despite a nomination by the DP not being a done deal at all, particularly since Ts Oyungerel has announced her candidacy. This announcement in itself was quite surprising to me, of course, given Oyungerel’s very active support for Battulga in the 2017 election.
Battulga also seems to be taking swipes at former PM Su Batbold, possibly including the recent law suit against Batbold in a New York court that seems to be a collection of some allegations regarding contracts at Erdenet, though there is little concrete evidence of Batbold profiting from these, and even more vague allegations around Oyu Tolgoi as they have been brought against a number of other former officials.
But, in the end, Battulga seems to have been taken by surprise by Khurelsukh’s response that he would resign as Prime Minister.
The next obvious question then becomes: Why did Khurelsukh take this seemingly extreme step of resigning?
Some messaging and tweeting leads to the following as the most plausible explanation: big political theatre staged to be a grand accountability gesture in preparation for a presidential campaign.
Everyone has been shocked by the former PM’s decision though, it was not expected. It was clearly seen as a well organized drama. Obviously he’s cabinet resigned not only due to the protest, there might be various reasons, but most likely due the
— Zorigoo Bat-Erdene (@Z2Gegeen) January 21, 2021
That logic seems to be rooted in recognition that things are not going as well at the moment as they were earlier last year. COVID keeps flaring up, renewed lockdowns take an economic toll, Mongolians – like many people around the world – are tired of living under an existential threat… Khurelsukh might worry that his perception of effective governing was beginning to crack.
So, better to resign in a grand gesture than continue to preside over a challenging situation? And, framing that gesture in accountability terms is a preview of the presidential campaign where Battulga is fairly easily portrayed as not being accountable in any obvious way, though he might counter that elections is the place directly-elected presidents are held accountable, or at least that used to be the case when re-election was possible. In any case, resignation makes Khurelsukh looks like he is responsive to public sentiment, willing to take responsibility, all of which then is turned into him being the honourable leader that a president should be.
I cannot see any logic for the resignation if Khurelsukh is not fairly certain of being nominated as the presidential candidate by the MPP. And his resignation as PM does not mean that he resigns as party chair in any case.
On Friday, the MPP party council will meet to select a nominee for prime minister. That nomination would be submitted to the president. Forgive me for my confusion [happy to edit this section if responses can enlighten me], but I am not sure whether there is any room for the president to refuse the nomination as has happened frequently in the past, or whether that step has been changed by the 2019 constitutional amendments. Once this nominee is submitted to parliament, the MPP’s super-majority there should guarantee election.
The only person that would seem a somewhat obvious-to-me choice at this point to succeed Khurelsukh would be L Oyun-Erdene, MP and cabinet secretary. He is one of the few members from the previous cabinet who were re-appointed. He has been prominent as the author of Vision 2050. I would have guessed that he would be one of the candidates to succeed Khurelsukh when he has to step down from the party chair as part of the nomination as a presidential candidate. Of course, Oyun-Erdene is closely associated with Khurelsukh, so if the turmoil this week is somehow a sign of other actors in the MPP staging a revolt against Khurelsukh, then perhaps Oyun-Erdene might not be selected by the party council. There may well be other candidates, including any rebels against Khurelsukh, but I am not really aware of any specific individuals.
I am far too far removed to speculate about cabinet appointments and whether some of the expert ministers under Khurelsukh would simply roll over to a new cabinet after having only served for just over six months.