By Julian Dierkes
Before the presidential election campaign gets started in earnest, I want to offer my sense of the candidates, issues, and some thoughts about possible outcomes.
Candidates have now been nominated. In one of the great surprises of the political year (not!), the MPP nominated U Khurelsukh, frm PM and, I assume given the requirement for candidates not to be members of parties, frm party chair. In yet another odd twist of the self-destructive trajectory of the DP, it, or at least some relevant part of it, seems to have nominated N Altankhuyag, frm PM and frm party chair. Though, wait, maybe not?Finally, XYH nominated D Enkhbat, entrepreneur and frm MP for then-Civil Will Party.
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 4, 2021
Main Dynamic: Anti-MPP Vote and Run-Off
I think that this election will turn entirely on how strong the desire among voters is to elect a non-MPP candidate for balance, and how that dynamic will play out in a three-way race.
We only need to turn to the 2017 election as an example of the desire of Mongolian voters to see some balance in the highest offices. With Marissa Smith, I recently wrote about this trepidation about one-party domination in the context of Pres Battulga’s attempt to ban the MPP. Inadvertently, Battulga’s seemingly desperate attempt to cling to power or have a chance to be re-elected will have sharpened the case for a non-MPP president in some voters’ mind.
But, how will this play out in a three-way race? The 2017 election had brought a run-off for the first time even though there had been other elections with more than two candidates. For example, in the 2013 election N Udval’s MPRP candidacy did not force incumbent Ts Elbegdorj into a run-off though he only won with a slight margin.
[Sidenotes: Yes, a woman has been a candidate for president recently, either supporting or questioning the frequently-heard comment that “Mongolians will not vote for a woman”. That common view is contrasted to me (as a German) by the sense that Germans find it hard to imagine a male chancellor at the moment. Also, note the interesting coincidence that Udval had previously been a Minister of Health, a role that brings much more attention with it in pandemic times, has often been seen as a “feminine” ministry, though, surprise, in critical times, we are back to a male Min of Health. Finally, note that Mendee and I had a back and forth about the likelihood of a run-off in 2013: Me I, Mendee, Me II.]
First prediction: Khurelsukh will win a plurality, but not a majority of votes in the first round, thus forcing a run-off.
The MPP can count on its rural and committed voter base to give Khurelsukh a lot of votes, but if anything, it seems like trepidation about the dominance of one party has grown since 2017, so it seems like a majority is unlikely. This is odd, in some ways, of course, as the electorate certainly endorsed the MPP and then-PM Khurelsukh in the 2020 parliamentary election.
Will COVID Play a Significant Role?
It is odd to think that a global pandemic, recently high infections in Mongolia, even outside of Ulaanbaatar, and the government response to it will not be a dominant driver in the election. Yes, it will be present as a topic, but perhaps not as much as I would have expected even a month ago or so. Why? Khurelsukh’s resignation as PM in January seemed driven by electoral calculations, involving the fear of a less-than-stellar record on fighting COVID. More oddities in that since a) Khurelsukh’s 2020 election victory was interpreted as partly due to the effective COVID response of his government, and b) if the electoral calculus was a strong driver, why did PM L Oyun-Erdene not react more forcefully to rising infection rates, even recognizing the supposed lockdown fatigue that may or may not have been a widespread sentiment.
But, infection rates and vaccine shipments can change massively in the five weeks of the campaign. So, this could really backfire on Khurelsukh if infection rates remain high and/or there are continued delays in vaccine shipments. Or, a decline in infections and/or rise in vaccinations could be a boost to his candidacy. Either way, I suspect that Khurelsukh will emphasize his COVID response much less than I would have thought months ago while other candidates may want to raise this more loudly.
And, hopefully, public health conditions will be such that an election (campaign) will be possible roughly as it was last year, i.e. physically distanced campaigning and lots of distancing measures for the election, perhaps even enabling mobile voting for quarantined individuals.
Second prediction, a bit lame: The impact of COVID will depend on … COVID, that is infection and/or vaccination rates. In all likelihood, COVID will not be eradicated nor is there a public health catastrophe coming (I hope), so the impact will perhaps be muted.
Khurelsukh himself? Very attractive to the party faithful, I assume. And thus possibly also attractive to a good number of Enkhbayar/MPRP supporters many of whom “turned” on their “roots” in 2017 by voting for S Ganbaatar. If MPRP support is still somewhere around 10% nationwide and if I am correct in guessing that almost all of that support might vote for Khurelsukh, maybe that is the only path to a majority in the first round.
What else does Khurelsukh offer? Generational change in the MPP, competent management as PM. He certainly thinks of himself as a leader, though he does not express that in any policy ambitions that I am aware of. Perhaps a strong suit for a presidential candidate, i.e. he is probably good at looking presidential. My sense that he would continue to weaken Mongolia’s international relations (as Pres Battulga has) for being very much focused on Mongolia is more likely to be attractive to his supporters than important or unattractive to any swing voters.
I am assuming here that his nomination will stand despite the DP-internal, um, shenanigans.
Obviously, he is very familiar to voters. As far as I can tell, considering his long presence in politics he is relatively untainted by (corruption) scandals. But if I am right that the election will turn on anti-MPP-dominance sentiment, can he galvanize that sentiment and motivate swing voters to a) vote at all, and b) vote for him? I do not have a strong sense of how Altankhuyag is perceived in public.
Disclosure: I invited Enkhbat to a November 2008 conference on contemporary Mongolia (which was the basis for the edited volume, Change in Democratic Mongolia – Social Relations, Health, Pastoralism, and Mining), so I have met him personally and have communicated with him in the past.
@ElectionMuseum Are you gearing up for the presidential election? Here's a nice photo of (likely) candidate @enkhbat campaigning for parliament in 2008 election in front of Gandan Monastery! pic.twitter.com/L56aeCltbY
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 7, 2021
Again, some oddities particularly in XYH’s nomination of Enkhbat who, after all, has been a member of parliament for the Civil Will Party (now, Civil Will Green Party) and who has not really been involved in XYH, as far as I can tell. However, he is clearly sympatico to much of what XYH stands for, i.e. a different kind of politics, more educated, perhaps more liberal (in an economic sense, though not neo-liberal, I think, i.e. support for entrepreneurs, but not a religious belief in markets as a policy panacea).
I do think that he will be able to galvanize much of the urban anti-MPP vote. For example, many of the supporters of the “blank ballot” movement in 2017 are likely to vote for him as support of a different-from-MAHAH political force. But, perhaps I overestimate the numbers of those people as I, along with many others, had expected more XYH candidates to win seats in last year’s parliamentary election.
I do not have a strong sense of how he is perceived by the public, though his past political office and his various entrepreneurial activities make him prominent enough that he is well-known.
Third prediction: Candidates’ personal qualifications will be over-shadowed by the anyone-but-the-MPP dynamic.
The president’s political powers are quite limited. There are really only three policy domains where the president has significant direct influence, largely through participation in appointments: foreign policy, judiciary, and the military.
Given these limits, past presidential campaigns have not been strong on policy. And neither have presidencies. Can anyone name a successful policy ambition that Pres. Battulga has been able to carry out. Where there even any discernible initiatives other than populist ploys for public enthusiasm like the death penalty or various pay-outs?
Along these lines I suspect no concrete policy proposals or discussions from MPP or DP candidates. Potentially, Enkhbat could be different in this regard as he may credibly talk about different policies. Yet, the strength of his claims would come in areas like economic policy where the presidency brings symbolic power at best.
The one area of policy that has been of great concern to voters (and this observer) is the independence of the judiciary and – closely related – anti-corruption efforts. In this area, Enkhbat’s independence and lack of a strong party power base, as well as his own trajectory as an entrepreneur not firmly aligned with any conglomerates as far as I know, he may have a lot of credibility with all those voters who are concerned about this issue. Yes, Khurelsukh and Altankhuyag will talk a lot about anti-corruption policies, but they have no discernible track record in these efforts and neither does either of their parties for the past decade.
Fourth prediction: Even if it is unclear how determinant of a vote this may be, anti-corruption is the single topic where policy might matter, but only if Enkhbat can claim the anti-corruption mantel effectively.