By Julian Dierkes
In June, Mongolians will participate in a presidential election again. The electoral system has remained largely unchanged since the first free election in 1993.
In late January 2021 a conference on “Democratic Challenges in Asia and Mongolia” was virtually held at the National University of Mongolia. The event was organized by Profs. Badamdash D and Bumdari D and (virtually) brought together international and Mongolian researchers focused on democratization in Mongolia.
Гадаад дотоодын эрдэмтэн, судлаачид оролцож Монголын улс төрд өрнөж буй олон асуудлыг улс төрийн онолын болоод эрх зүйн талаас ухаж ойлгохын зэрэгцээ ОУ, бүс нутгийн хандлагуудтай харьцуулж үзэх боломж олгосон сонирхолтой хурал боллоо. Баярлалаа @num_edu pic.twitter.com/Zsem1VJjyy
— Enhtsetseg (@enhtsetseg) January 29, 2021
Among the presentations, I was very interested in Gerelt-Od’s presentation on changes in electoral systems, an issue that I have been quite interested in.
E Gerelt-Od is a professor at the Mongolian State University of Education and is a prominent commentator on Mongolia’s politics with a particular focus on party politics. He has previously written for this blog as well. His presentation focused on changes in the electoral system by which parliament has been elected over the last 30 years.
This prompted me to wonder why the system to elect the president has undergone virtually no changes! If the particular development of the Mongolian party system, including the legislation pertaining to the operation and financing of political parties has led to a four-year cycle of changes to the electoral system – including some fairly radical swings between proportional representation and majoritarian elections – why is the presidential electoral system not changed?
As readers know, I’m a sociologist. So, what do I care or know about electoral systems? Well, as a five-time election observer, I have tried to learn as much as I can about Mongolia’s recent elections and it is very obvious that the parliamentary elections have been run under different electoral systems every time.
I would note, importantly, that these every-four-year changes seem not to have been terribly confusing to voters. My sense as an election observer has always been that voters who come to the polling station know what they are doing. There seems to be very little back-and-forth between voters and election officers as voters cast their ballot. I attribute this largely to the good education work of the General Election Commission. As problematic as its – partisan-seeming – appointment mechanism may seem, the resources dedicated to voter education seem to be well-spent and voters seem to be attentive to them.
Yet, it is hard to imagine that these regular shifts are confusing in terms of the interpretation of results. It is also damaging to trust in democracy in that every change has brought more and more discussions of the partisan nature of decisions about electoral systems, i.e. many observers and voters seem to interpret the changes in electoral systems to be largely self-serving by the party that controls parliament.
Why Not the Presidential Election System?
Perhaps it seem or perhaps it even is silly to ask why the presidential election system has not undergone regular changes. After all, the very nature of that presidential election is a direct one and Mongolia remains a unitary state so there is no strong argument for alternatives to a nation-wide direct election.
But is that really true? Why not an election that has some kind of regional mechanism built in? It would not have to be as archaic, hard-to-understand and potentially anti-democratic as a the U.S. electoral college, although formerly common forms of electoral colleges have largely disappeared. But note the French presidential election as an example of a twist on a direct election. Yes, the electoral college was abandoned for the Fifth Republic in 1962, but even today the nomination of a candidate requires the support of 500+ elected officials. That is a variant on the Mongolian requirement that a party has to be represented in parliament to nominate. Both requirements effectively function to reduce the number of candidates though more so in Mongolia today than in France.
But, one could imagine a system that somehow included a component to ensure regional representation, for example a quorum for the winning candidate by region. Given some of the arguments about the parliamentary election and the need to ensure regional representation (even though MPs seem quite focused on Ulaanbaatar in their political lives), how come similar arguments are not made in the context of the presidency?
Similarly, why no more experimentation around the stages of an election. One of the surprises of the 2017 election was that it had to go to a second round after no candidate had won a majority of votes. While the requirement for more than 50% had been part of previous elections, this situation had not arisen. To make the French comparison again, French presidential elections demand a second round that reduces a larger field to two candidates only as we will see in roughly a year’s time again in 2022. But no prescribed stages have been discussed in Mongolia.
If it is partisan interested that drive changes in the electoral system, were MPP leaders just not clever enough to foresee that an MPRP candidate (N Udval) might “steal” votes from B Bat-Erdene to allow Ts Elbegdorj to win? What about M Enkhbold in 2017, at the time very much a politician that was intent on victory and not shy about manipulating systems to get his way. Did he not foresee that S Ganbaatar might take a significant portion of a protest vote? If the MPP is so clever about parliamentary elections to engineer two landslide victories in a row (2016 and 2020), how come they have not been able to win a presidential election since N Enkhbayar’s victory in 2005?
Is the Direct Election of a President Fundamentally Different from Parliamentary Elections?
So, is it silly to ask about the stability of the presidential electoral system?
Perhaps, the role of a single head-of-state is simply clearer to electorates than that of a representative body. And thus, perhaps is the election of that head-of-state even with less executive power clearer and more obvious to observers and policy-makers.
Take the Kyrgyz example: a succession of crises and doubts about presidential power keep leading to a reinstatement of presidential power. Or, take the U.S. Presumably, the spurious claim to any kind of leadership that a person like Donald Trump was able to make was rooted in an understanding of political action focused on a single individual and the qualities of this individual. Even when an Electoral College sits between direct election by citizens and confirmation in a role , this direct election of an individual seems somewhat more obvious than the specifics of parliamentary elections.
So, perhaps it is not so surprising that the presidential election has not really come under any kind of review. Maybe there is a political scientist out there who is interested in comparative electoral systems who can explain the stability of that electoral system compared to Mongolian parliamentary elections.