Last week, the Mongolian parliament stunned pro-democracy advocates when it voted to remove the safeguards protecting the independence of its courts and its anti-corruption agency. In doing so, the parliament helped further President Khaltmaa Battulga’s ongoing attempt to consolidate power. The action follows months of scandal and protests, which facilitated the support Battulga needed for this week’s vote.
Many observers have considered Mongolia an unlikely “oasis of democracy” since it left the Soviet Union’s orbit in 1990. Now it’s the latest nascent democracy to begin sliding toward authoritarian rule. Before last week, Mongolian laws insulated judges from political pressure. Parliament appointed the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC), and the president appointed the prosecutor general. Both had six-year terms to protect their independence.
But the legislation passed Wednesday grants the president, prime minister and the speaker of parliament the authority to dismiss both these positions and all judges without justification before their terms of office expire. What’s happening — and why are observers concerned?
What’s happening in Mongolian politics?
The prime minister and the speaker both depend on coalitional support in parliament, making them politically vulnerable. The president, however, enjoys fixed four-year terms and thus dominates the prime minister and the speaker, giving him unchecked power over the judiciary. And indeed, by Friday, the president had dismissed the prosecutor general, who had been advocating for the prosecution of members of parliament implicated in a high-profile corruption scandal. A coalition of Mongolian lawyers has filed a petition with the Constitutional Court, arguing that the new law violates the constitution.
The new law was rushed through parliament with limited debate and no input from civil society. Of the 40 members of the 76-member parliament who were present for the vote, 34 voted in favor and six against. All seven members of Mongolia’s opposition Democratic Party left the proceedings in protest, declaring the amendment unconstitutional.
These erosions have been happening for several years
Eliminating the judiciary’s independence is not the first sign of democratic erosion. Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary election was plagued by a corruption scandal known locally as the “60 billion tugrik” case, in which the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) allegedly sold government offices in its future administration to finance its election campaign.
That election was also marred by sudden changes to the country’s electoral system. Just a month before election day, Mongolia’s two major parties — the MPP and the DP — changed the country’s election rules from a mixed system that uses proportional and majoritarian voting to a “winner take all” system that made it more difficult for independent and third-party candidates to win seats.
Battulga, a former martial-arts champion, was elected to parliament in 2004, and served as minister of industry and agriculture between 2012 and 2014 in the DP government led by Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag. He resigned after being accused of embezzling from a large industrial project he was overseeing, which had stalled despite spending millions of dollars. Before winning the presidency in 2017, Battulga was being investigated by the very institutions he has now brought under his control.
But Battulga’s own corruption scandal has been supplanted by more recent controversy. In November 2018, local investigative journalists revealed that the prime minister, members of his cabinet and more than a dozen MPs had embezzled about $1.3 million in funds intended for small-business development. Before Battulga removed him from office Friday, the prosecutor general was investigating nearly two dozen members of parliament on these allegations. These members of parliament and the prime minister’s cabinet either supported or abstained from voting on Battulga’s proposed legislation.
Battulga won Mongolia’s 2017 presidential election through a divisive and populist campaign that accused his political opponents of being part of a secret oligarchy that controls Mongolia’s two major political parties. He argued that this allegedly “corrupted” oligarchic group exploits Mongolia’s vast mineral resource wealth at the expense of the ordinary people. Battulga promised to take back the country’s mineral wealth and distribute it to the Mongolian people. In the days leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Battulga was actively demanding that the prosecutor general investigate his main political rival, former president Tsakhia Elbegdorj. When the prosecutor refused, Battulga accused Mongolian judges of being controlled by the secret oligarchy and called on parliament to support his new law.
Battulga’s dismissal of the prosecutor general signals that those under investigation are unlikely to face justice. Moreover, it suggests that future judicial appointments and dismissals will be politically motivated, and that Battulga may weaponize the courts against his opponents.
In 2017, parliament passed a law making defamation a criminal offense punishable by jail terms of three to six months or fines of between 51 and 150 times the monthly national minimum wage, from $6,000 to $17,000. Since public figures frequently file defamation cases against journalists, the new law may push journalists to self-censor. Should the president stack the courts, this law may be more frequently used to prevent anyone from seriously criticizing him or his allies.
Say goodbye to coups and hello to ‘democratic backsliding’
Mongolia’s recent developments are consistent with what political scientists call “democratic backsliding,” occurring throughout the world in such countries as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Bolivia and Venezuela, which has left one-third of the world’s people living in countries in democratic decline.
Once, democracies collapsed in dramatic and unambiguous ways. That’s now rare. While coups d’état, revolutions and civil wars still occasionally bring down established democracies, it’s more common for democratically elected leaders to gradually erode the quality of democratic institutions.
Political scientists see an independent judiciary as providing essential checks and balances that prevent the executive branch from arbitrarily using power. When presidents can pack judiciaries with partisan appointments, dismiss judges at will and weaponize the judiciary to punish political opponents, democracy suffers.
Just as critical are free and fair elections and news media that can report freely. Recent research suggests that these are most likely to be threatened by populist politicians who win elections by using rhetoric that divides citizens into the “true people” and the “corrupted elite,” and who claim that nothing should constrain the people in their quest for justice.
Mongolia will hold parliamentary elections in June 2020, with presidential elections a year later. Observers will be watching to see whether Battulga and his supporters continue interfering with the electoral process, another indication that Mongolia’s democracy, too, is becoming one in name only.
Boldsaikhan Sambuu (@bold_sambuu) is a PhD student in political science at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Aubrey Menard is a Smith College and Oxford University graduate who consults on democracy and governance issues throughout the world.