Expectations of Coming Election

By Julian Dierkes

With Marissa Smith and D Enkhtsetseg, I have set the stage for the coming parliamentary election in terms of the changes to the electoral system. I have previously offered some thoughts of what these changes might imply for electoral strategies for parties. But what about elections as a contest of ideas, as the opportunity for Mongolians to contribute to decisions about the future development of their country?

What to campaign for when elections are not a contest of ideas?

To me, Mongolian democracy is primarily defined by the freedoms it affords citizens, less by the opportunity to define future directions and contribute to collective decision-making about that future. The dominant political parties are generally not defined by ideological positions, but instead offer a broadly pragmatic approach to political decisions that maintains the fiction that there are single best solutions for given policy challenges. I do not find the MPP to be particularly social democratic, nor the DP particularly business-friendly, and KhUN has also not built a clearly defined policy agenda.

Of course, the parties have submitted their platforms to the audit agency for approval. Mongolia is somewhat unusual in this regard in that the audit agency submits election platforms to a feasibility tests that is intended to prevent outlandish claims and promises. Parties are then restricted to items that had appeared on their election platforms and were approved in their campaign activities.

So, yes, parties will campaign on election platforms that will allow voters to have a sense of some of the substantive directions that future governments might take. But, these directions are unlikely to amount to any kind of coherent policy theme (eg market liberalization, support for rural regions, climate emergency mitigation, etc.). Broadly speaking, I therefore do not anticipate substantive debates and controversy during the campaign, nor a significant shift in overall policy as an outcome of these elections.

Elections under a Super Majority

The lack of ideological or substantive focus is exacerbated by the two-term supermajority that the MPP has held. Contrary to my expectations, it looks like PM Oyun-Erdene will not only serve out a term, but will also be able to enter the election to campaign on his record of governing. Given the past turnover in prime minister (albeit largely without any real change of political direction), this is unusual. It also means, that Oyun-Erdene and, by extension, the MPP will not have a strong claim as to new directions that they would pursue. Instead, their campaign will largely focus on the relative stability that their government has brought. That includes governance during COVID19, though perhaps that is fading in voters’ memories. Perhaps most prominent in the campaign will be the relatively good economic situation that Mongolian seems to find itself in at the moment. Yes, anecdotal evidence suggests that many younger, professional Mongolians may be frustrated by the perceived lack of opportunities for them, and there is significant unemployment among the urban poor, but the beginning of underground production at Oyu Tolgoi coupled with the unfortunate (in environmental terms) boom in coal production and export, places Mongolia on a seemingly solid economic footing, at least in the medium term.

While many Ulaanbaatarites continue to suffer under severe air pollution during the winter months, that issue somehow seems less virulent than it has in the past. The desulphurized coal along with the promotion of electric sources of heat as well as some resignation, may have led to this issue being less prominent than it had been in some previous years. Of course, June blue skys also contribute to air pollution perhaps never quite being top-of-mind during elections.

Opposition Topics

It is unclear to me that the DP is really engaged in any kind of renewal of its dominant voices or policies. If the old guard and the “golden swallows” of the revolution continue to dominate, or worse, in policy terms, former president Battulga asserts some authority over the party, I have no expectations that substantive initiatives are likely to come from the DP. In all likelihood, the campaign will be built around, “the MPP is bad, we are the good guys [sic!], vote for us” and the hope that past patterns of voters alternating between the two big parties return. If the DP nominates a full slate of 126 candidates as might be expected, this surely will include a number of younger and fresher voices, but they will be bound by a party establishment that will restrict any real substantive advances.

Beyond the generic, “the MPP is bad” narrative, KhUN seems likely to focus on their previous themes of their substantive, technocratic preparation for office and the need for a personnel change in government. Neither of these necessarily make for a strong substantive focus.

Corruption may be a topic that KhUN might push hard. It is clearly linkable to an overall “out with the old, in with the new” appeal, and the “coal theft” case has left the MPP and the government vulnerable to accusations even when there has been a blitz of anti-corruption measures over the past year. The recent revival of the legal case against former prime minister Su Batbold in the U.S. attracted some international attention, but will be hardly new or surprising to Mongolians, so seems somewhat unlikely to play a significant role. Yet, a focus on corruption seems unlikely to go beyond claims of “we’re better than them” to extend to actual substantive changes around transparency of contracts or general transparency at state-owned companies.

Linked to a corruption narrative might be an opposition focus on specific policy failures of recent times. That would include examples like the long drawn-out construction of the Darkhan road or the flooding in Ulaanbaatar last summer that seemed to point so clearly at corrupt practices in building permitting. Given the large number of seats available in the Ulaanbaatar ridings, these seem like they will be active topics, esp. in case June rains bring any additional instances of flooding. However, they are also somewhat unlikely to be linked to a larger policy agenda, say around urban public transport or protection of green spaces.

Unlikely Topics

As is true in many elections, it seems unlikely that foreign policy will play a significant role. While Mongolia’s position remains somewhat precarious caught between aggressive neighbours and the fear of a hardening of global blocks, there are no real divisions between the parties on foreign policy. Sure, some older MPP politicians might easily be portrayed by the opposition as Russophile, but they also stand for a perspective that may well be shared by a significant part of the electorate. In any case, it seems like there is very little wriggle room for Mongolian foreign policy that would energize voters.

Environmental issues seem increasingly visible to Mongolians, whether that is urban air pollution or the deterioration of grass lands or frequency of natural disasters, but these remain discussed primarily as particularistic issues, not as the basis for a broader ecological agenda.

For once, it would also seem that other than claims of corruption, Oyu Tolgoi and the agreements between the government and Rio Tinto may not be much of an issue in this election.


About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Corruption, Democratic Party, Elections, Foreign Policy, Governance, Ikh Khural 2024, JD Democratization, KhUN, Mining Governance, Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Policy, Politics, Public Policy, Social Issues, Ulaanbaatar and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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