By Julian Dierkes
People expect political predictions from me as a longtime Mongolia observer and country specialist. Even when I feel relatively certain of some predictions I would make, there is always that nagging doubt that strange things might happen and I will look foolish for having made the wrong prediction. Oh well, that is the nature of this game of country risk assessment and understanding of a political system, I suppose. Let me think through some current examples to illustrate.
New/Snap Elections in 2023?
You have heard the rumours! There are all kinds of constitutional change discussions afoot to enable snap elections.
My prediction: less than 10% probability that there will be a general parliamentary election this year. Phrased differently, if there were 100 alternative universes playing out political developments in Mongolian in 2023, I would expect to see elections in 10 of them.
What would I base that prediction on?
- I have heard those rumours before! In fact, it sometimes feels like Mongolian democracy is lurching from crisis to crisis, at least roughly since the July 1 riots in 2008. But that is actually not true when we look back. Mongolian democracy has been stable over that period. Three parliamentary elections (2012, ’16, ’20) since then, also four presidential elections (2009, ’13, ’17, ’21). Two shifts in party origins of president (MPRP->DP in 2009, DP->MPP in 2021). Several coalition governments, but also transitions of power (eg. 2016 DP->MPP). Those are not features of a democracy in crisis even when many people (esp. Mongolians) seem to experience it as such.
- While constitutional changes are easier to enact in Mongolia (Chpt 6 of the constitution) than in many democracies, they do require a 3/4 majority in parliament. That means that even if all MPP MPs were in favour (any efforts at amendments without the MPP would currently obviously be doomed), that would barely be enough votes for an amendment (minimum 57).
- Who is actually in favour of a snap election? Voters? Protesters in December did not demand a snap election, they were holding the current government to account on corruption. The MPP? I doubt it. It seems unlikely that they would increase their seat count in a new election, so why would the party favour a new election. The DP? They are in such chaos that a) it is hard to think of the party having any perspective, and b) they seem unlikely to benefit from dissatisfaction with the MPP. KhUN? Well, they only have one vote in parliament, so they could only be in favour of constitutional amendments together with the MPP and is that an alliance they want to form?
- Constitutional amendments? We have often heard those debated! I cannot quite take the proposals from frm Pres N Enkhbayar all that seriously since he is fairly removed from actual political decisions these days. There are enough other alternatives floating around, but I do not see one that significant numbers of decisions-makers or civil society are coalescing around.
- I personally do not see any urgent need for constitutional change, even though that opinion obviously counts for very little in this process. I commented on some of the proposals that were floating around in summer 2022.
- Finally, consideration of constitutional amendments halts all other parliamentary business. There are legislative projects that the MPP and MPs have that they want to complete with an eye toward the (regularly scheduled) 2024 election that would be derailed by another round of constitutional debates.
Oyun-Erdene Prime Minister until Summer 2024?
I’d give this a likelihood of perhaps 15%. In other words, I am not expecting L Oyun-Erdene to lead the MPP into the summer 2024 election.
- Again, history. N Enkhbayar served a whole term (2000-04), but he is the only example of that. Khurelsukh was PM for 3 1/3 years, Oyun-Erdene has been in office for just over 2 years now, but is there any reason to think that he will break this pattern of limited terms of prime ministers? His term has not been so wildly successful to suggest that, I think. One of 15 PMs under the current constitution served a whole term? So, something less than 7%? By that reckoning, I am actually giving Oyun-Erdene some chance by pegging that at 15%
- Why do PMs not serve longer even when their party commands a majority in parliament as the MPP has since 2016? Factional politics (Erdenebat->Khurelsukh), personal ambition (Khurelsukh->Oyun-Erdene to enable Khurelsukh’s presidential candidacy), patronage, ie power party figures want “their” turn. I see nothing in the current configuration that suggests that this pattern has changed. Some observers think that candidates are already waiting in the wings.
- The MPP is fairly comfortable with this kind of turnover. That comfort was perhaps at the root of Enkhbayar’s spin-off following his failed re-election bid for the presidency in 2009, ie he was expecting to be a leader for a more sustained period, but much of the party wanted a change.
- Political mood. Oyun-Erdene has been a somewhat successful manager of cabinet, both as cabinet secretary as well as PM. He has some identifiable projects like Vision 2050, e-government in general, the “New Recovery Plan”, but these projects have seemingly not endeared him to voters entirely. Or, so the April and December 2022 protests would lead me to believe.
Protests this Spring?
I will give this an 80% likelihood, but no prediction on the likely size of such protests, their focus, duration or impact.
- Spring is protest season. Something about thawing from the long, cold winter seems to get people out on the streets, and unhappy people even more so. There are lots of examples from the democratic revolution in 1990 itself (though it got going in the winter) to the April 2o22 protests.
- The issues that gave rise to the April and December 2022 protests have not gone away. The issues that I mean here are some kind of general dissatisfaction with the lack of delivery on government promises, particular on employment and welfare (see 4. above on Oyun-Erdene’s chances of serving out his term).
- It is unlikely that the corruption cases that seemed to have prompted the December 2022 protests will be resolved in a credible way by then, but I would not assume that these cases themselves will spark protests again, though they might.
In this prediction, I give no credence to all the claims about protesters being bought. I felt somewhat vindicated last December in terms of taking protesters focus on corruption seriously, instead of dismissing these protests as political manipulation, by the way.
Challenges in Making Predictions
Lack of Evidence
Compared to many other democracies, we are working with a lack of evidence in the case of Mongolia that make predictions more of a guessing game. Despite the efforts of various polling organizations, polls map less of the political reality than would be ideal in making informed guesses.
Lack of a Herd
There are not that many people I can talk to about Mongolian politics in a disinterested analytical fashion. Some of that analysis should rely on swarm or, in the case of Mongolia, more fittingly, herd intelligence. Exchanges of views, disagreements on interpretation, etc. would all strengthen my analyses and give me greater confidence in predictions. But, there are only a limited number of people who follow developments closely enough for me to engage them in these kind of conversations.
Fragmentation of Power
I encounter non-Mongolian business people occasionally who tell me that they’ve met some important figure (vice-ministers are mentioned especially frequently in this regard) who is going to help make their project happen.
Here’s an example:
STARLINK ENTERS MONGOLIA ????️
Here comes Elon Musk with his Starlink satellites to provide internet all over Mongolia’s vast steppes. Starlink Services Mongolia LLC is officially registered as an entity. It is expected to launch in 2023 but a lot is to happen before its launch. pic.twitter.com/8pjotznomV
— Inside Mongolia (@Inside_Mongolia) May 17, 2022
I can very much imagine that someone at Starlink met N Uchral or some other official who reassured them that implementation of this business venture is just an MOU away. Well, it turns out that that is not the case because political power in Mongolia is highly fragmented. The intraparty divisions and factions as well as the siloing of ministerial tasks means that even the prime minister would be hard-pressed to actually “make something happen”.
What does all of that mean for my predictions?
I have a lot of contacts in Mongolian politics who will tell me that “that this minister is about to be sacked”, or “that MP is about to be arrested”, or even, “there will be a snap election in three months”. They are not lying to me, but they are representing only one particular base or angle on decision-making. So I actively resist letting such “inside” information sway my judgement of the likelihood of events, as exciting as it sometimes seems that I have heard it from “a reliable source” and maybe even heard it first.
So, when I do make predictions, be kind. And remember that I am trying to make predictions, not endorsing developments. And I try to be transparent about what factors I am considering in making those predictions as I have in this post.
Also, question the assumptions I am making or the logic by which I arrive at my conclusions or the evidence that I am relying on.
When I get stuff wrong, be kind and keep reading my attempts at providing research and evidence-informed analyses of contemporary developments!