On June 29, Mongolians will head to the polls to elect the 76 members of the State Great Khural, Mongolia’s parliament. What’s at stake for Mongolia’s democracy?
During his recent visit to Mongolia, Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the country as an oasis of democracy. Political scientists call Mongolia a “deviant democracy,” one that defies most of what we know about the emergence and survival of democracy.
A developing country and former Soviet satellite, Mongolia lies between Russia and China. Since its transition from communism in 1990, economic growth has been fleeting. Yet democracy has survived. Ahead of Mongolia’s parliamentary elections, here’s what you should know.
1. Independents are on the rise
Among 12 parties competing this year, recent opinion surveys indicate a virtual tie between the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its main opposition, the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), created in 2012 by a breakaway MPP faction, is in distant third.
This year’s election is unusual in that a record number of independents — 69 — are running for office. Some independents are celebrity candidates — singers and wrestlers and the like — while several others belong to a newly created labor party that the electoral commissioner has refused to register. Turnout has declined from 98 percent in 1992 to 65 percent in 2012, and is expected to be even lower in this election.
2. Electoral rules are in flux
Free and fair elections are the “only game in town,” but the rules of the game change frequently in Mongolia. After experimenting with a variety of electoral systems in the past, Mongolia settled on a mixed majoritarian–proportional system (described in detail below) before the 2012 elections.
Electoral reform followed the highly contentious 2008 elections, in which the MPP won a surprise victory and the losing DP claimed fraud. Protest ensued, then-President Nambaryn Enkhbayar of the MPP declared a state of emergency and five Mongolians were killed by security forces. The DP eventually accepted the election outcome and joined a coalition government with the MPP.
In the reformed electoral system negotiated by the two governing parties, 48 representatives were elected using majoritarian rules, which means in each of 48 local districts, the candidate with the most votes won.
An additional 28 members of parliament were elected under proportional representation, which means those seats were allocated in proportion to the share of votes cast for each party in a nationwide competition. (For the more technical readers: These were closed party lists, with a 30 percent quota for female candidates.)
The party list system benefited the MPRP at the expense of MPP, helping it secure 11 seats in the legislature, which was the best performance for any third party in Mongolia’s democratic history. The gender quota instituted in 2012 was effective as 11 women were elected to parliament, the highest ever in Mongolia’s democratic history.
The latest electoral rule change followed an April 21 Supreme Court decision that declared, just two months prior election day, that the party list proportional representation portion of the electoral law was unconstitutional.
With little debate, MPs from the two major parties hastily approved the court’s decision and passed a new election law, according to which the upcoming elections will use simple plurality vote in 76 mini districts. The 30 percent quota for women was reduced to 20 percent. The PR seats were tossed out.
The new rule is expected to put small parties, such as the MPRP, at a disadvantage. It is unclear which of the two major parties will benefit most from this change.
3. Major parties are on the decline
Why did the recent move back to a pure majoritarian electoral system receive bipartisan support? One can only presume that politicians from both major parties were keen to drop the party list vote because they are well aware of voters’ growing disappointment with them.
Since democratization, political power has alternated between the MPP and the DP. However, these parties offer voters little choice. Both governing parties in this mineral-rich country have pursued large mining projects as a source of growth, but shares from mining have not resulted in real improvements in the living standards for the vast majority of Mongolians.
There is a sense of exhaustion among Mongolian voters who see the recycled elites from both parties as self-interested and corrupt. Recent opinion polls indicate that close to 60 percent of voters have little or no confidence in political parties and an equal number of people identify as nonpartisan. The same polls show that Mongolian politicians with the highest approval ratings are independents like Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a populist and outspoken critic of foreign ownership of Oyu Tolgoi, the largest copper/gold mining project in the country. (The British-Australian multinational Rio Tinto mining corporation holds 66 percent of the shares of Oyu Tolgoi, leaving 34 percent for the Mongolian government.)
Incumbent politicians must be counting on the reformed, candidate-centric electoral system to help them to compete locally based on their own standings in their districts rather than relying on their parties’ national reputations to give them a parliamentary victory.
4. What’s at stake for Mongolia’s democracy
New rules or not, it is hard to imagine a strong victory for the ruling DP. From record high growth of 17 percent in 2011, growth slowed to a meager 3 percent in 2015. The DP government engaged in a widely publicized and bitter dispute with Rio Tinto over financing a $5.4 billion underground expansion of the Oyu Tolgoi mine. Foreign direct investment dropped precipitously and the national currency plummeted.
However, the MPP may not have enough support to win an outright majority of the seats, and the MPRP may split its vote in some districts. This leaves open some possibility for the DP to retain a place in the government.
Under the new rules, this year’s election will, in effect, be 76 mini elections. The big question for Mongolian democracy is whether the MPRP, other small parties, or any of the independents will come out of this election as viable alternatives to Mongolia’s established but unpopular two-party system.
Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a graduate student in the School of Political Science & Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo.