Mongolia goes to the polls today in a parliamentary election to pass judgement on the government of prime minister Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh, who took over from his predecessor, Jargaltulga Erdenebat, in October 2017. Both men represent the Mongolian People’s Party (centre-left), which won a landslide at the 2016 election.
If, thirty years ago, you had asked which states from the old Soviet empire would make the most successful transition to democracy, Mongolia probably wouldn’t have been near the top of anyone’s list. Yet it has done remarkably well, developing a stable multi-party system in which power has peacefully alternated between parties. (It’s also done a fine job at fighting off Covid-19.)
The system, however, has been under strain in the last couple of years. In 2017 Mongolia elected a rather Trumpy president – former wrestler Khaltmaagiin Battulga, from the opposition Democratic Party (centre-right). The president is supposed to be mostly a figurehead, but Battulga had a more prominent role in mind, and proposed various measures to try to increase his powers.
For a time, Battulga and Khürelsükh worked closely together to sideline their critics, despite coming from different parties. Depending on which side of the fence you were on, their measures were either a necessary means to sweep away a corrupt elite, or a dismantling of necessary restraints on the power of just such a corrupt elite. As often seems to be the case in new democracies (and some older ones), self-styled corruption fighters turn out to have a racket of their own going.
President and prime minister appear to have fallen out in the latter part of last year over a constitutional overhaul. What has emerged, contrary to Battulga’s wishes, is a set of amendments to strengthen the parliamentary nature of the system, including restricting the president in future to a single six-year term. There are also measures to improve judicial independence, although in view of recent history there must be some doubts about Khürelsükh’s sincerity on this score.
Another problem for Mongolia is that its governments have developed the bad habit of fiddling with the electoral system. Shortly before the 2016 election the then Democratic Party government abolished the proportional element, leaving only single-member first-past-the-post seats. That backfired badly when its opponents won 45.9% of the vote and collected 65 of the 76 seats.
The Democrats, with 33.7%, could manage only nine seats. The only other party to win representation was the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (left-wing, but not as much so as its name might suggest), with 8.1% and a single seat. There was also one independent.
Undeterred by that example, the Khürelsükh government has now made the system even more undemocratic by switching to multi-member constituencies but keeping them first-past-the-post. That should work against smaller parties and independents, many of which have been motivated to stand by the recent period of turmoil.
A recent opinion poll shows the People’s Party maintaining its lead with 45.2% against 29.4% for the Democrats. The People’s Revolutionary Party, running a joint ticket with the Greens and liberals, has 14%. But it’s possible that conditions in Mongolia don’t lend themselves very well to accurate opinion polling.