Mongolia’s consensus-based governance shields democracy

The successful candidate in Mongolia’s 2017 presidential race
Ulaanbaatar, July 2017: politician and businessman Battulga Khaltmaa won Mongolia’s presidency after a campaign with nationalist and anti-corruption themes (source: dpa)

Mongolia’s new president was inaugurated for a four-year term in June 2017. Battulga Khaltmaa, a former martial arts star-turned-businessman and politician, had won the election by 50.61 percent – a mere 7,332 votes over the required threshold of 50 percent, although his lead over the second-placed rival was a resounding 10 percent. According to the country’s General Election Commission, turnout was 60.67 percent, smaller than in previous elections. The contest provided insight into Mongolia’s current condition as a democracy and a market economy.

There were several “firsts” in this election process. For the first time in the history of presidential balloting in Mongolia, a landlocked, minerals-rich country with a population of 3 million, a runoff was required to pick the winner as none of the three candidates received the required half of the votes during the first turn. And then, also for the first time, more than 8 percent of voters chose to cast blank ballots, signaling they preferred none of the two finalists.

Mongolia appears to be riding the same wave of discontent as many democratic societies of the West

Another novelty was a strong showing of a third party in a presidential race. Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a resource nationalist and trade union firebrand (running under the flag of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, a splinter group from the mainstay Mongolian People’s Party), received over 30 percent of votes in the first round, which put him in the third position.

Voters’ anger

The presidential campaign and its final outcome speak volumes about resentment among the public about the distribution of wealth and power in the country. Mr. Battulga has won on a platform similar to those that brought successes to Donald Trump in the United States and Emmanuel Macron in France. The key ingredients of his campaign were:

  • antiestablishment (political and business) narrative, undeterred by the fact that Mr. Battulga himself counted among Mongolia’s wealthiest businessmen and had been elected to the parliament three times and held cabinet posts twice
  • exploiting nationalism and anti-foreign sentiments, particularly Sinophobia, more openly than in the previous elections, although none of the sources spreading these views were directly related to his campaign; the public did not seem concerned by charges that he had been living with a Russian woman and fathered her children
  • anti-corruption rhetoric – this from a candidate who had been investigated by Mongolia’s anti-corruption agency (the charges were dropped after the election, which again brought up accusations of politicization of the country’s law enforcement agencies)

Persistent focus on this agenda in Mr. Battulga’s internet-savvy campaign sharply contrasted with the lack of clarity from his opponent. Mongolia appears to be riding the same wave of discontent as many democratic societies of the West: increasing inequality in wealth distribution alienates its middle class against the establishment; identity politics is on the rise because people want to place the blame on someone else; internet alters the political process by engaging previously inert voter segments.

Same as in many other countries, Mongolia’s political class needs to absorb this challenge and come up with solutions on matters ranging from affordable housing and a more progressive but also small-business-protecting taxation scheme, to affordable medical services and education, decent old-age pension system all the way to cultural policies protecting Mongolian identity in the globalizing world. Most of all, the leaders need to become more honest about what they can and cannot accomplish, and find ways to make the country’s governance system more transparent and honest. Morality is not tangible and yet the concept cannot disappear from the practice of public life, especially in the era of internet and social media, when the public can be mobilized instantly. Unless the political class measures up to the challenge, the country’s future may be stolen by populists and authoritarians.

Quiet start

Thus far, President Battulga has introduced no drastic changes in Mongolia’s domestic or foreign policy, nor has he alienated investors. His presidency has merely started, though, and the presidency is not a towering institution in the country’s well-balanced system of power.

Polling station workers in Ulaanbaatar is colorful traditional dressess
Ulaanbaatar, June 26, 2017: Staff members of a polling station in Mongolia’s capital sing the national anthem as voting begins in the presidential election (source: dpa)

Mr. Battulga comes from the Democratic Party, the main opposition force in parliament, which assures that his relationship with the government is not going to be smooth. His appointments, too, suggest a rather combative disposition on his side. For instance, his chief of staff, a former speaker of Parliament, is known for his confrontational style (even if his stands on issues are hardly radical). The president is certain to pursue his pet projects such as the railroad link from the coal mines in the south of Mongolia to Russian ports in the Pacific, and an industrial park in the southeast of the country.

Some of these projects could have a potential of escalating business rivalries. The large Mongolian conglomerates that mine coal would rather transport it across the border to China, at a distance many times shorter than Russia’s eastern seaports. In dealings with Russia, China and the “third neighbors” (Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” policy aims for friendly relations with countries such as Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the US) some short-term volatility may occur on Mr. Battulga’s watch. A profound deterioration is unlikely, though, given the good rapport between Russia and China.

Successful democratization

The 2017 elections once again have confirmed that Mongolia is a functioning democracy, the only such in its part of the Asian continent. Since 1990, all Mongolian elections have been recognized as free and fair – internationally and domestically. While several countries started their democratic transitions in the early 1990s in Central Asia, it appears that only in Mongolia a democratic system has taken roots. There are lingering problems, of course, related to the country’s past as a member of the Soviet bloc – most notably insufficient independence of judiciary and politicization of law enforcement agencies. However, fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution are largely upheld. Mongolian news media, for example, while often accused of bias and paid reporting, are free to criticize any person and institution, and exercise this right vigorously. This ability to speak about the problems augurs well for the country’s democratic prospects.

Why Mongolia’s transition has worked so well? A large part of the answer lies in its 1992 constitution, which distributes and balances power among the main branches of the government. Mongolia is a parliamentary republic with vast powers given to the legislature. It appoints and votes out the prime minister and members of his or her cabinet. It appoints the general prosecutor and members of a judiciary council, the head of the Central Bank, the public service commission, the anti-corruption agency, the financial regulatory commission and the country’s ambassadors. Parliament amends and approves the budget, and approves monetary policy. It even renders decisions on large economic and infrastructure projects.

All decisions by the prime minister must be countersigned by an appropriate cabinet minister to be carried out


Unusually, the speaker of the parliament is one of the three members of the National Security Council, along with the president and the prime minister. The council may discuss any issue and make recommendations. Most importantly, only this body can authorize the president to impose a state of emergency in a case of civil strife, natural disaster, etc.

The executive powers, in turn, are vested in the office of prime minister. He or she runs the day-to-day operation of the cabinet, but cabinet decisions are made collectively. All decisions by the prime minister must be countersigned by an appropriate cabinet minister to be carried out.

A popularly elected president is the third pillar of the system. In Mongolia, he or she can veto legislation (which can be overruled by two-thirds of parliament; a high threshold in practice). The president also appoints the chief of staff of the armed forces and nominates the heads of key state institutions appointed by parliament. As directly elected by the people, the president has a strong mandate in Mongolia and a lot of influence. His words carry weight.

In this political architecture, there is also the Constitutional Court, which can overturn any decision by the government, parliament on constitutional grounds, and the Supreme Court, which issues final legal verdicts also on administrative matters. Such a wide distribution of power does not allow anyone to dominate the system.

Culture of consent

There is another important factor explaining the success of Mongolia’s democratization. Due to its decision-making culture, all fundamental policies, bearing on the country’s development and security, are based on consensus - or at least some agreement among the major players. In other transition countries, when consensus fails, conflicts between the holders of divided power can be dangerous – as in 1993 in Russia, when a gridlock between the parliament and the president led to a brief armed conflict and unconstitutional dissolution of the parliament. The damage from that conflict to the fabric of Russia’s fledgling democracy proved irreparable. In Mongolia, there were also instances when branches of power were pitted against each other. However, every time a solution was found within the confines of the constitution (even if it meant amending it).

There was no purge of the old elites, which facilitated the historic transition and spared Mongolia a conflict between losers and winners

Why this type of consensus-based decision-making prevails in Mongolia and to what extent it could be attributed to its institutions or culture, can be debated. However, the patter is clear: even in sharp disagreement, all the actors prefer to follow the original constitutional design of balance of powers.

This culture is also evident in the continuity in power elites that goes beyond the norm among former Soviet bloc countries. Mongolia’s old Communist elites initially guided the country’s democratization process, then collaborated with other political forces in its development. The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which in 2011 returned to its original name Mongolian People’s Party, ruled the country from 1921 till 1990 under the one-party, Soviet-styled system. However, it made a conversion to social democratic ideals and now is one of the two main political forces in parliament. The party returned to power in the 2016 parliamentary election, following a loss in 2012. Its main opponent, the Democratic Party, represents the center-right that had initiated the democratic and market reform in 1990. These two groups have alternated in power ever since. There was no purge of the old elites, which facilitated the historic transition and spared Mongolia a conflict between losers and winners in the political revolution.

Scenario

Aside from an expansion in recent years of the president’s prerogative to nominate heads of vital institutions (for instance, the head of the Anti-corruption agency, Civil Service Commission), the power-sharing scheme remains in place. The new president appears unlikely to bend this system, at least at this point.

Changing it would require altering the constitution via popular vote and parliamentary approval. Although Mongolians at large appear to favour switching to a presidential system, such a reform seems to have no chance of being accepted in parliament, which is extremely likely to protect its powers. Judging from the ongoing discussions on the constitution, if anything changes at all – that is a big if! – it will be in the direction of enhancing the legislature’s powers. All the previous presidents at some point have been accused, fairly or not, of having desires to expand their authority. Mongolia’s consensus-based decision-making system prevailed each time, however, and it is likely to be so also on President Battulga’s watch.

The country’s democracy has proven sturdy because of constitutional distribution of power among several strong institutions, the nation’s tradition of consensual decision-making and its inclusive political practices. This formula could prove useful to other countries. Interestingly, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine adopted versions of semi-presidential, semi-parliamentary systems that bear a resemblance to Mongolia’s solution.

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