“Mongolia is important and Mongolian politics matter” is a phrase we don’t hear very often, neither from policy makers, politicians, nor academics. Still, with increased interest in Mongolia on the international stage, and several new Mongolian Studies projects being pursued by world-class universities, perhaps it is time to start asserting that SMALL MATTERS.
This website starts with a simple, although potentially groundbreaking, presumption: small states matter in international politics and security. In this post, I want to focus on why Mongolia matters, and some preliminary ideas on what international actors are looking for from Mongolia as related to the most recent elections. While Mongolia is by no means a world power, a sophisticated foreign policy coupled with a booming mining sector and proven democratic stability has allowed the country to attract international attention on a scale usually reserved for larger actors. I propose that the 2012 Parliamentary election was important for two interrelated reasons: 1) a show of democratic strength and commitment to democratic development; 2) a test of stability for the economic/investment climate.
As I have stated in previous posts, Mongolian democracy matters not only as a domestic regime, but also as a type of international PR. For example, Mongolia’s democratic system has streamlined its relations with the United States. Mongolia has enjoyed US military assistance in training and technology in exchange for its support of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mongolia has contributed hundreds of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and has stationed peacekeepers around the world as part of various UN missions. In fact, much of Mongolia’s defense forces have been converted into a well-trained international peacekeeping force, with plans to increase the number to 2,500. The US has carried out much of this training out in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises.
The US-Mongolian relationship is greatly strengthened by shared democratic values. The US and Mongolia are both committed to the rule of law and both governments gain their legitimacy as a result of the democratic process. Unlike the CCP in China, the Mongolian state’s legitimacy is not solely based on the ability to provide economic returns (although that is certainly a very important factor). Rather, Mongolian elections must also be seen as legitimately reflecting the voters’ decisions. Concerns over electoral fraud and corruption add an extra complication to the state’s legitimacy. However, to date there has been no proof of any fraudulent activity large enough to suggest that the whole election was bought, and as a result the in-coming MPs will be at least largely legitimate, even if not necessarily viewed as such by all their constituents.
This election is yet another brick in the wall of proof that Mongolia has implemented a largely successful democracy. As a democracy, it is better able to cooperate with other democratic players: nations that would otherwise have little interest in Mongolia. Turning to Mongolia’s larger foreign policy goals, we can see that relations with other democratic nations are a key factor in the country’s efforts to extend itself beyond its immediate neighborhood. Mongolia is surrounded by two huge, distinctly non-democratic countries- Russia and China- both of which have exercised varying amounts of control over its domestic policies in the past. Mongolia is distinctly aware of the fact that as a small country between giants its sovereignty and general ability to control its own domestic policies are anything but a given. In response to this potential complication/threat, Mongolia has implemented a policy of cultivating relations with other world actors outside of its immediate geography through what is widely referred to as the “Third Neighbor Policy”. Notably many of Mongolia’s “third neighbors” are stable democracies with good human rights records. These include Japan, South Korea, India, the US, and various EU countries (i.e. Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and several others). Investors in Mongolia do not have to justify the morality of their investments to the same extent that they might when investing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, for example.
Shared democratic values, as demonstrated by successful elections such as the one this June, provide Mongolia with a way to deepen relations with other actors and address its larger foreign policy, security, and economic interests.
Mongolia’s economy grew over 17% in real terms this past year, making it the fastest growing economy in the world! This little fact is often shocking to people, who write of the country as part of an undefined “third world”. Of course, this is up 17% from a rather low starting point, but still this remains a sign of development and is perhaps indicative that international investment in the mining sector is paying off for the country in general. Without judging prematurely, it is clear that international investors were watching this election closely for two things: signs of instability and signs of populism-influenced protectionism in the Mongolian market.
“Do you expect a repeat of the events of 2008?” many people, foreigners and Mongolians alike, asked me during the build up to the election. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian politics, let me briefly explain. Following the announcement of an MPRP (now MPP) victory in the 2008 Parliamentary elections, the DP called a protest, saying that the elections were fraudulent and corrupt. Things quickly got out of control and what started as a peaceful protest outside the MPRP headquarters turned violent, resulting in 5 deaths, the complete destruction of the MPRP building, and the partial destruction of the Cultural Palace (located unfortunately close to the party building). I did not expect a repeat of these events this year, and I am very happy to have been proven correct. Even though the events of 2008 where contained by the morning, such riots are by their very nature unpredictable and international investors and observers were notably anxious that any such repeat might have the potential to spiral out of control.
Perhaps more importantly, investors want to ensure that their investments are protected and that their contracts with the Mongolian government will be honored. When Mongolia implemented a windfall tax overnight on mining profits in 2006, investors became acutely aware that the rules of the game could change at the drop of a hat. While the windfall profits tax legislation was eventually repealed in 2009, it remains something of a scandal, and worried many investors, while simultaneously scaring off others (presumably). While some Mongolian political players are more or less predictable and open to international investment, one party in particular had a particularly populist slant: the MPRP-MNDP “Justice” Coalition. Dr. Julian Dierkes previously identified the MRPR-MNDP vote as a sign of populism, citing the fact that supporters are often drawn to the message of standing up to international market forces as well as resource nationalism. After winning 11 seats in the Parliament and quite likely becoming part of a coalition with the DP, we might conclude that some elements of populism remain popular in the Mongolian political and social sphere. Indeed with rising xenophobia, this seems hardly surprising. (See my previous post on Fears of Survival). Whether this will will translate into harder times for international businesses in uncertain, but I would venture to guess not, seeing as the DP will the be leading figure in any coalition and it clearly pro-business.
Considering increased economic interest in Mongolia following a record year of growth as well as the PR potential of democracy and adherence to human rights norms, I conclude that this election had at least some level of importance to Mongolia’s international partners. Although, let me admit that while from Ulaanbaatar everything Mongolian seems significant, the likelihood that any international players were loosing sleep over this election is not likely. What is also interesting is the fact that, from what I could tell, none of the parties had any explicit foreign policy message in their action plans/policies. While I maintain that Mongolia exercises notable agency in its foreign policy decisions, as a small country a domestic political change cannot upset foreign policy to the same extent that Presidential elections in the USA can. (More on Mongolian agency and choices later).
Note: A version of this article was published in the July 23rd edition of the UB Post, Mongolia’s leading English-language newspaper. Hopefully, a link to follow.
Looking at the results of Mongolia’s 2012 Parliamentary elections, everyone wants to know with whom the Democratic Party will ultimately form a coalition. Before Naadam, the Democratic Party officially announced that it would be looking into the possibility of a coalition with the MPRP-MNDP. As one of only 2 other parties holding enough seats to give the DP a majority, MPRP-MNDP is certainly a statistically viable partner. Indeed, it seems the partnership only makes sense numerically.
Politically it is hard to imagine two more different parties in the Mongolian political spectrum. Enkhbayar’s Justice Coalition (MPRP-MNDP) ran on a distinctly populist platform pushing for more government control over the economic system as a way of battling economic inequality. But don’t let this confuse you. This is not about the kind of government reform that many of us are pushing for in the US and other developed countries. This is a policy made to play off irrational fears of foreign companies and even the entrenched anti-Chinese feelings that many Mongolians harbor. It is a party that has the potential to derail foreign investment and negatively impact Mongolian economic development.. In addition, its controversial leader, N. Enkhbayar, also makes the party a less-than-welcomed ally to the DP. Voters that support the DP are likely not to approve of a coalition with the MPRP-MNDP. They voted for the liberal economics and human rights supporting policies of the DP. What is even more worrisome (at least to me) is the potential political strength that such a coalition would give the “Justice Coalition”.
As part of the political bargaining process, the MPRP-MNDP will be granted a number of ministerial positions in exchange for their support to a DP Prime Minister. Mongolia, like many countries, appoints ministers on a political basis. Professional capacity does not seem to be a pre-requisite. And this brings me to my point: the political appointment of ministers does not support real institutional development, but is an impediment to that process. If Mongolia wants its ministries to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible, the heads of these institutions cannot be temporary political appointments. It seems to me to be an “issue of genre”, by which I mean that it is an issue of specialty. Is it so radical to expect that the head of the Ministry of Education, to take one important example, be an expert in education policy?
Of course, I recognize that this is a common practice, and the posts for the US government’s various departments are political appointments as well. Indeed, in some cases these appoints seem to work well. Hilary Clinton, for example, is possibly the best Secretary of State the US has ever had. Still, I can’t help but think that we need a reordering of political business as usual. In the case of Mongolia, I am sure that DP voters, which represent the majority in this past election, are uneasy with the appointment of MPRP-MNDP ministers. The final coalition remains to be determined, and the DP might ultimately form a coalition with CWGP and some select MPPs that might choose to the cross the floor. Still, the problematic nature of political appointments remains.
For Mongolian language news on the appointment of ministers please go to:
Some more links to newspapers and programs quoting me. It looks like Mongolian elections are the one time when being a young Mongolist and political analysis is an in-demand skill.
The Global Post has published an article exploring discontent and disillusionment in Mongolian politics, making use of a rather large quote from me: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120702/mongolia-elections-democracy-voter-apathy
More significantly, Dr. Julian Dierkes and myself have written a joint article on the issue of trust in elections, which has been published by the East Asian Forum: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/07/05/mongolia-electronic-counting-but-no-trust/
Finally, I offered a statement to Chinese News (CCTV) on the Mongolian elections, the video footage from which is available here: http://newscontent.cctv.com/news.jsp?fileId=146949
The UB Post, the most widely read of two English-language newspapers in Mongolia, has recently published an article entitled “Why this Election Matters” by Michelle T. While addressing a number of topics, my research on the election process, campaigns,and foreign interests was featured prominently with direct mention to myself as well as this website: www.miliatematters.com. Furthermore, several topics of additional concern were also mentioned including the 20% quota for women in the Parliament (Улсын Их Хурал). Michelle has also done some research on the LGBT movement and recently interviewed the Director of the LGBT Centre. I look forward to reading more of her articles in the future. As a side note, I also recently did a live televised interview with Shuud TV, in Mongolian no less. Luckily for me, no video available!
For the link to the article mentioned above, please go to: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/index.php/community/88888940-community-top/7416-why-this-election-is-important
For another excellently done article on Mongolian elections, check this out: http://world.time.com/2012/06/28/mongolias-election-voters-go-to-the-polls-with-countrys-mineral-wealth-at-stake/
For Dr. Julian Dierkes’ posting on the beginning of election observation activities in Mongolia please find the following link:
For my post on the closing activities and most likely result visit:
Increasing clear that the Democratic Party has won a majority of seats. No signs of unrest at this time. Hoping for a smooth end and turnover. More posts tomorrow on the formal results and possible implications. In the meantime follow my twitter feed @Miliatasana (https://twitter.com/Miliateasana).
Julian and I have just returned from the Democratic Party Rally in Yarmagt, Han-Uul District where the party’s two Parliamentary candidates L. Bold and Ts. Oyuungerel as well as E. Bat-Uul, running for UB Parliament, made speeches in support of the party and their campaigns. The rally provided interesting insights into the last couple days of campaigning.
My general sense was that even after 20 years on the Mongolian political scene, the DP still uses its status as the “new guys in town” to draw distinctions between itself and the MPP. They still seem to see themselves as the new and distinctly modern party. Directly related to this “newness” was reference to the DP as corruption-free, fighting for a corruption-free Ulaanbaatar and country. Also tied to this so-called modernity is the clear reference to Western-style democracies, namely the United States of America. During the introductions of Bold and Oyuungerel, the announcer made particular mention of their US education as a sign of their legitimacy to lead. Furthermore, L. Bold himself made a bold statement by telling the audience that Mongolia had two choices in this important intersection in its political and economic development: 1) the Chinese path; 2) the American path. This was in reference not only to the country’s economic development model, but also to human rights and liberty. The DP is promising a “Mongolian Dream” (paralleling the “American Dream”) whereby the people have the ability to achieve their wants, needs, and aspirations. The central DP central slogan comes to life when the speakers proclaimed that Mongolians want to “live like a (real) person and develop like a (real) country” (Хүн шиг амьдрмаар байна, Улс шиг хөгжимөөр байна!). The people’s thoughts and ideas are the party's thoughts/ideas, and their dreams are the DP's dreams, or so we were told.
Surprisingly, both the rally and the general meet-and-greet that preceded it brought up a topic that I not previously considered a pressing political issue: land rights. This surprisingly hot-button issue may mark a key distinction between the MPP and DP. The MPP seems to be more interested in working as quickly as possible to re-organize and in some cases replace the ger districts as well the quickly developing regions near Zaisan Monument (Зайсан Цогцолбор). The DP is running on a platform of protecting individual land rights and even extending rights to ger district citizens so as to allow a market driven resolution that benefits as many people as possible without the state forcing anyone’s hand. Admittedly, this is not an issue that I have any experience in, and I did not expect this issue to come up since it has not made it into any of the elections materials that I have seen. Clearly, it is an area for further thought, and perhaps further blog posts.
The proceedings of the rally where rather standard, with the obligatory cheers and whistling, politicians followed by such cultural icons as actor Amaraa and a rather amusing character in a bright orange deel. Held near the airport, both Julian Dierkes and myself where delighted by the clean air full of the uniquely characteristic smell of the Mongolian countryside. The rally was attended by approximately 500 people, presumably mostly from the ger district across the street. Interestingly enough, the event included a parachuter and concluded with a full on fireworks show. These seemed rather poorly planned and distracted from the the candidates themselves, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it anyways. All in all, a seemingly successful rally that proved very informative on DP strategy.
I remember being shocked during my first trip to Mongolia in 2008 when walking along Peace Avenue, I saw a car belong to the unofficial political group/gang Blue Mongol (Хөх Монгол) sporting a prominent and rather taboo swastika. After asking around, I learned that this was one of several ultra-nationalists groups to be found in UB. At the same time, graffitti on various walls through the city featuring a swastika with the initials М.Ү.Н. (Монгол Үндесний Нам/Mongolian National Party) was readily visible to even the most inattentive observer. In 2009, such vandalism and the same Blue Mongol car could be spotted almost daily, and I remember hearing news reports of Chinese business men attacked, Korean tourists beat, and Mongolian women having their head shaved as punishment for dating a foreign (i.e. Chinese) man. Still other cars and vans with similar messages started popping up, and in the center of the city one could readily spot groups of young men with the tell-tell tattoos and hairstyles readily associated with ultra-nationalist gangs. In the same year, the BBC featured a couple of stories on another nationalist group, Даяар Монгол (roughly translated, Worldwide Mongolians). In 2010, not much had changed. However, as I was telling this story to friends, they asked what the situation was today and I realized an important development: not only have I seen far less М.Ү.Н. tagging, nor have I seen more than a couple of (admittedly hastely profiled) nationalists, I have not once seen that notorious Blue Mongol car that started my casual observations on this topic 5 years ago.
My feeling is that the visibility of such groups have declined in the past couple years, and perhaps some of their political activities have been checked by the authorities to ensure a secure environment for the upcoming elections. At the same, less visibility does not mean the end to xenophobic voilence. Random attacks against foreign business men and women, NGO workers, and so on are still to be heard, and anti-Chinese statements make up a significant proportion of graffitti. So, the question remains: What happened to the visibility of such groups? Have they spintered apart as such de facto gangs are prone to do? Do they lack any larger support structors to maintain themselves? Obviously these questions are not easy to answer, but the observations above might have a lot to say all on their own.
I have been in Ulaanbaatar for about 3 weeks now and from some informal conversations with teachers, past advisors, and friends I have come up with some general, almost anecdotal, observations. While these are not through in depth study or surveys, I have relied on several Mongolian-language news articles in addition to other more casual conversations. Take them with a grain of salt, but not so much so as to retain water.
1. The Mongolian People’s Party is in a bit of an identity crisis. The change in name from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (Монгол Ардын Хувсгалт Нам) to the Mongolian Peoples Party (Монгол Ардын Нам) is just one example of how the MPP is increasingly torn between tradition and reform. Just after the official candidates were announced, but before they were required to register in their respective voting districts, PM Batbold wished his party good luck, stressing two things in particular. Firstly, that this is a party with certain traditions and that they would stand by those traditions. Secondly, that despite this strong connection to heritage and tradition, the MPP was also a new party with new ideas and new policies to put forward.
I can't help but recall the old nickname that the MPP had, back when it was still the MPRP: Ах Нам (The Big-Brother Party). This was the traditional party that led Mongolia for over 60 years, this age and experience made them not only trustworthy but inherently respectable as the elders of the nation. Today’s MPP has to appeal to two very different electorates: the older supporters who will stand by their party based on tradition and perhaps some idealized, nostalgic memory of the old-communist system; and, Mongolia’s younger voters, who are going to look for a fresh political agenda to support their interests. It seems to me that these two groups have interests that are not easy to effectively co-address. Still, the MPP recognizes that it must begin to appeal to the new demographic reality of the country. Another side of this uncomfortable position between tradition and reform is apparent in the creation of a new political party, using the MPP’s old name: The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, originally lead by Enkhbayar, but now focusing on some other, less scandalized politicians in coalition with the Mongolian National Democratic Party (МYАН: Монгол Үндесний Арчилсан Нам). Indeed, the MPRP-MCDP coalition's slogan, Шударга ес (with possible translations being justice, fairness, and loyalty), challenges the MPP’s claim to tradition.
As a more general note, I will say that in the center of the city the MPP seems to dominate the skyline, with far more campaign posters, billboards, and banners; however, as you leave the center of the city, they are casually overtaken by the DP. One Mongolian friend mentioned that this was because the center of the city has historically been strongly democratic and the periphery more MPP-leaning, so the more materials the weaker the party is in that section of town. This is a casual observation, but useful when trying to get a more general feel of the election.
2. Support for Enkhbayar in Ulaanbaatar is limited, despite disproportionate international concern. I have yet to talk to a single Mongolian, who is unhappy with the arrest of N. Enkhbayar. While it is imperative that we wait until the results of a fair trail to make the final judgment, no one I have talked to so far thinks he is innocent. Indeed, politicians as rich as Enkhbayar and his family rarely are very clean. However due to an excellently managed and funded PR campaign (Хар PR, depending on who you talk to) Enkhbayar has managed to convince an international audience that his arrest is completely politically motivated and that it is a sign of the crumbling of Mongolian democracy. I argue otherwise. Instead, I say that the ability to pass an Anti-Corruption Law and organize an Anti-Corruption Agency capable of going after the usually untouchable ex-politicians is a sign that Mongolia’s democracy has never been so strong. The trial will ultimately be conducted according to nation-wide standards in line with the legal code of the country. In this way, I find this issue to be ultimately up to the Mongolian people and am disturbed by the international press and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s support for such an unpopular politician.
3. Ultimately, elections everywhere are about legitimacy. Mongolia’s political legitimacy will be largely based on how the government manages Mongolia’s unprecedented growth and whether everyone will be able to enjoy the benefits of this growth. In reality, any government, whether democracy, or autocracy, or authoritarian must be able to deliver “the goods”. China’s Communist Party’s legitimacy is wrapped up in it ability to develop and lead the country; Putin’s support network is based on a huge increase in the quality of life across Russia and simply being better than his predecessor, Yeltsin.
Yet, democracies have the additional concern of making sure that they can address almost every concern their constituency might have. Keeping this in mind, Mongolian political legitimacy will be based not only on developing the country, but also whether or not the government can manage the growth in a way that benefits as many Mongolian’s as possible. In the city elections, for example, major voter concerns are going to be air quality, the beautification of the city, traffic/infrastructure, and the ger districts. In the national elections, more general concerns will probably dominate the political agenda, with mining policy a likely key factor. A look at the main political slogans also revels some interesting insights. Both main parties are using a slogan that revels that they see their own legitimacy being tied to the quality of life of its population. The Democratic Party’s Хүн шиг амьдаръя, Улс шиг хөгжье (Live like a person, Develop like a country) and the MPP’s Эх орондоо сайхан амьдарцгаая, are very similar. The campaign might come down to which party is seen as more capable of spreading the country's new found wealth across the populace.
4. This election still has some logistical concerns to overcome and the combination with city elections might prove problematic. The decision to combine the City of Ulaanbaatar elections with the national Ikh Khural elections remains unclear to me at this time. I am not sure exactly how this is suppose to simplify or improve the electoral process at all, indeed, it seems an unnecessary complication. Additionally, I wonder if it doesn’t complicate the campaigning process. For example, the current mayor of UB is quite popular, even with voters that are do not usually support his MPP party. One has to wonder if this might affect swing voters’ decisions on whether to offer more support to MPP outside of the city elections, in a show of support for Munkhbayar. It will be interesting to see how it ultimately plays out. Continuing concerns about voter registration and the disbursement of new ID-cards also complicate the process.
5. S. Oyun is best described as the Hilary Clinton of Mongolia. She is a strong politician and woman, supporting all the right causes, with the strength of character to pull it all together. Enough said.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.