On June 26, Mongolians will elect a president from among three candidates: Enkhbold Miyegombo, leader of the governing Mongolian People’s Party (MPP); Battulga Khaltmaa, a former member of parliament from the main opposition Democratic Party (DP); and Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a last-minute candidate of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Having served two terms, current President Elbegdorj Tsakhia of the DP is ineligible.
To win outright, a candidate needs an absolute majority of the votes; otherwise, a second round of voting will be held between the top two candidates.
Mongolia lacks what political scientists identify as prerequisites for a liberal democracy. Nevertheless, since a peaceful transition in 1990 from communism, democracy has proved remarkably robust, earning Mongolia praise. Scholars have described Mongolia as a paradox, an anomaly, and a least likely or deviant case of democratization. This peaceful transition has had some exceptions: Social instability and violence claimed five lives after the 2008 parliamentary elections.
Here’s what you should know.
1. How powerful is the presidency?
Mongolia’s semi-presidential Constitution designates the presidency as the “embodiment of national unity,” granting it substantial power and influence over key government institutions.
The new president will serve a fixed term of four years. He will possess veto power over bills passed by parliament; presidential vetoes can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in parliament. The president, in consultation with the majority in parliament, has a right to nominate a candidate for the position of prime minister.
In addition, the president may initiate and sponsor legislation, provide policy guidance to the cabinet, represent the state in international relations and appoint judges and ambassadors. Finally, the new president will select the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption and the General Intelligence Agency, two of the most influential institutions in Mongolia.
2. What are the issues and who are the candidates?
Central to the election is the worsening economic slump caused by prior policy mistakes and the global commodity bust. Once the world’s fastest-growing economy, mining-dependent Mongolia faces mounting unemployment, declining foreign direct investment and a looming debt crisis.
After leading the MPP to a landslide victory in last year’s parliamentary elections, Enkhbold passed off the prime minister’s position so he could run for president. An economist by training and a career politician, he has also served as mayor of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
The government — fully controlled by his party — recently negotiated a bailout with the IMF and bilateral partners including Japan, Korea and China. The package is worth $5.5 billion, nearly equivalent to half the country’s GDP.
To enroll in the IMF’s three-year Extended Fund Facility program, the MPP backtracked on many election promises, agreeing to IMF demands that it raise taxes, shrink the social safety net, freeze public-sector wages and increase the retirement age. Monday’s election is likely to turn on whether Enkhbold has convinced poor and middle-class voters that the austerity measures are necessary.
Also running is the former artist and world-champion samba wrestler turned self-made business tycoon Battulga Khaltmaa, who snatched the DP nomination in the party’s first-ever primary election in May. Battulga entered politics in 2004 by using personal wealth from diverse business ventures.
Battulga has accused the MPP of betraying its election promises and paints the election as a referendum on the IMF bailout. Battulga suggested that he might support reinstating a bill requiring revenue from foreign-owned mines to be funneled through Mongolian banks. The IMF opposes this measure; if passed, it is likely to jeopardize the bailout. Battulga has also criticized Mongolia’s trade relations with and economic dependence on China.
The third presidential option was to have been MPRP leader Enkhbayar Nambar, who previously served a term as president but was later convicted of embezzlement and barred from running by the General Election Commission. At the last minute, the MPRP recruited and nominated Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, an independent populist known for condemning foreign ownership of local mines.
Once quite popular, Ganbaatar was discredited in a scandal that revealed that he had lied about his credentials, and he lost his parliamentary seat last year.
3. All three candidates face corruption allegations
Enkhbold’s campaign has emphasized his extensive public service, but his tenure as mayor was marred by widespread allegations of corrupt land reforms. Although uncorroborated, the allegations have added to the opposition’s narrative that Enkhbold is a corrupt insider who become rich by embezzling the state.
Corruption controversies also plague Battulga. As minister of industry and agriculture from 2012 to 2014, he oversaw an ambitious government program to build a mega-industrial park for processing Mongolia’s raw minerals and a multimillion-dollar railroad linking mines to the park. Both projects were largely financed by sovereign debt and stalled despite millions of dollars spent. The anti-corruption agency investigated Battulga and arrested several of his aides. He then broadcast a provocative documentary arguing that the railroad project is part of a conspiracy by the ruling elite to keep Mongolia dependent on China.
Meanwhile, a video was released that allegedly showed Ganbaatar accepting illicit campaign donations from a foreign national; police are investigating.
4. Confidence in democracy and elections is slipping
This year’s election includes mudslinging, a polarized media and attacks on candidates’ personal backgrounds. For instance, DP supporters are accusing Enkhbold of being “Erliiz,” a Mongolian word describing a person of ethnic hybridity, usually mixed Mongolian and Chinese.
What’s more, Battulga has adopted an implicitly Sinophobic slogan, “Mongol ylna,” which means either “Mongolia will triumph” or “a Mongol will triumph” — implying that his rival is not a true Mongolian.
Both Battulga and Ganbaatar have deployed an anti-establishment narrative, summarized by a Mongolian word for fog, “MANAN,” derived from the Mongolian abbreviations of the MPP and the DP, or “MAN” and “AN.” They’re suggesting that Mongolian democracy is a concealed kleptocracy, with corrupt leaders from both major parties collaborating to exploit the country’s natural resources at the population’s expense.
The DP nominee has been undermining voters’ confidence in the elections’ legitimacy. A secret recording was released on the eve of last year’s parliamentary elections in which the MPP chairman can be heard discussing with his aides their plan to raise campaign funds by selling government positions. Citing this recording, Battulga used the term “coup” and “sham” to describe the parliamentary elections. In campaign speeches, Battulga warns that the governing party is planning to buy votes nationwide.
What to expect
Without recent polls, it is difficult to predict who might win. A March poll showed that the DP had yet to regain popularity. More than 90 percent of MPP voters said they would vote for the party again if the election were held tomorrow. In the same poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they support neither party, which suggests that Ganbaatar — running as the outsider — may do well.
If Enkhbold wins, the MPP will further consolidate its hold on power. As president, he will probably maintain the status quo, with no major policy change. Either Ganbaatar or Battulga’s presidency would mean greater policy uncertainty in a time of economic hardship.
Will Battulga concede if he loses? That’s not clear. After losing his parliamentary seat by just a few hundred votes last year, Battulga filed a complaint with the courts, claiming that his opponent cheated — and never conceded. If he does that this year after a divisive election, violence could follow.
Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a graduate student in the School of Political Science & Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo.