Mongolia’s democratic puzzle

GUIDO VERBOOM 18 January 2006, originally published on

Mongolia is a landlocked country in central Asia surrounded by two giant neighbours: Russia and China. For many people in other lands its name still conjures the memory of history lessons about ruthless warriors who spread fear in the medieval world, or the contemporary sense of a peaceful nation sparsely populated by nomadic herders and their livestock among endless steppes and deserts. The images are not entirely false, though neither accommodates the distinct experience of a land whose urban population is more than half of the 2.7 million total.

The only military activity is in international missions to Iraq, Afghanistan and recently Sierra Leone. Even George W Bush came here in November 2005 and the papers didn’t know how to find enough synonyms for “Bush thanks Mongolia”. The United States president also mentioned Mongolia as “an example of success for this region and the world”, thanks to its high level of democracy.

Indeed, the last fifteen years can plausibly be presented as a success story for Mongolia. In this period there have been four free parliamentary elections; in the most recent (June 2004) the two major blocs (an alliance of parties initially combined in the Motherland Democratic Coalition [MDC] and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party [MPRP]) were almost level at the polls and formed a coalition government. This relative political tranquillity — especially in light of the post-communist experience of the central Asian states to the west (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) — makes the sudden political upheaval that began on 10 January 2006 especially surprising.

The crisis was sparked by the abrupt resignation of ten MPRP government ministers from the seventeen-member cabinet. This was read by many as an attempt by the MPRP to regain total control over parliament, and was quickly followed by mass mobilisations in the centre of Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) that targeted the party’s offices. Do these events suggest that Mongolia is not quite the good example of democracy that Bush hailed?

From Genghis Khan to the internet

Mongolia, more than most countries, has been shaped by its particular geography and history. In the times of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan), Mongolia was the source of innovative ways of ruling a vast empire, whose subjects were relatively independent just as long as they were able to pay their taxes. The Mongolian dynastyat last was taken over by China, and the territory endured rule by its southern and eastern neighbour for 275 years. In 1911 the collapse of the Qing dynasty, and agreement between the Russia “bear” and the China “dragon”, opened a path to independence a decade later.

This followed a flirtation with the “white” Russians in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution and with a “mad baron” called Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Both disappeared from the scene as the support of the “red” Russians helped Mongolia to become an independent republic. In 1924 the People’s Republic of Mongolia was established — the second communist state in the world after the Soviet Union itself.

The impression is that the leaders of Mongolia, rather than making an idealistic choice for communism made a pragmatic strategic choice to join the best party to keep them out of the claws of the dragon. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was apparently not even translated into Mongolian.

There was one problem: there were no proletarians in Mongolia, the base of Marx’s theory was missing. But inventive as they are, Mongolians came up with a concept that showed the country was actually moreadvanced than other communisms: “bypassing capitalism”. A famous mosaic of a Mongolian horserider depicts the idea: from the yellow feudal soil the horse jumps over the black grounds of capitalism into the wonderful red soil of communism. The mosaic is still there on the side of the former Stalin library, but recently — oh, irony — it has been covered by a huge billboard advertising an internet company.

The communist period did take its toll. In the 1930s, many citizens (and especially monks) were killed in rigid purges and it seems that almost every leader of Mongolia suddenly died during a visit to Moscow.

So when the “big brother” Soviet Union abandoned the red dream in 1990 — and perhaps more importantly stopped its financial support that constituted some 30% of Mongolia’s gross national product — the government in Ulaanbaatar quickly followed suit. Without even one bullet being fired, Mongolia entered a new phase of its 800-year existence by becoming a democracy.

The travails of power

The former communists of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party surprisingly won the first elections of the post-Soviet period and continued their record as the world’s longest continually-governing party. But the transition to a market economy, and the disappearance of welfare provision, imposed severe difficulties on Mongolia’s people. Education and health care suffered and economic progress was slow. In the 1996 elections a union of democrats won an almost two-thirds majority in parliament, forcing the MPRP into opposition for the first time in its history.

The democrats were ambitious and motivated, but their lack of experience, internal struggles and scandals made their four years in office (under as many prime ministers) far from successful. The MPRP took advantage in the next round of elections in 2000, gaining nearly 95% of parliamentary seats (on slightly more than half of the popular vote). After these successive, extreme political swings, the 2004 elections resulted in an almost equal balance between the two voting blocs, with disputes over the allocation of seats lasting more than a year.

After a long and difficult negotiating process the MPRP and an alliance bloc (of the Mongolian Democratic Party, the Mongolian New Democratic Socialist Party, and the Civil Will-Republican Party) formed a coalition government.

The MPRP and the alliance bloc agreed to share the positions of prime minister and speaker of parliament, alternating after two years. This has led to a subtle jockeying for power between the rival camps which eventually sparked the current crisis.

The resignation of the MPRP ministers had the effect of ousting alliance prime minister Elbegdorj three months before his two-year term was due to end. But although some of the political parties and media outlets portray the upheaval as a step back towards communism, everything so far has happened within the framework of the constitution and democracy. True, a provocative move by the MPRP triggered the current political spasm, and the ensuing popular demonstrations have been a challenge to public order, yet it must be emphasised that the people did come out to protest and nobody forced them to stop.

All in all, then, I would argue that these incidents can be understood as part of the “normal” operation of democratic politics: a power struggle between legitimate political parties. The MPRP’s long years of experience of power still seem to make it more cunning than its opponents in getting what it wants. But the crisis it has released might be seen as a cathartic break from the stalemate of a coalition that no one really wanted, one which opens the way to renewed political debate and healthy exposure of differences.

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