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The Road to Power

By Guest Contributor , on 24 August 2016

This is the third in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections that were held on June 29th.

This post was written by Liz Fox, a UCL ESRC-funded anthropology PhD candidate affiliated to the Emerging Subjects project. Liz is completing the final stage of her doctoral research in Mongolia.

 

There’s a new road in Aglag District.[1]

When the diggers suddenly appeared one evening at the end of May, the area was filled with discussion over whether the road would be paved or not. What needed no discussion, however, was why, suddenly this May someone from the government had decided that the nearly impassable central artery through this Ulaanbaatar ger district finally needed attending to. That was obvious: the June election.

The arrival of trucks of gravel and sun-blackened workers was followed shortly by a sudden rush to open and occupy abandoned shops and office spaces. Flags and banners appeared outside these doors, as did flyer-distributing pairs in colour-coordinated baseball caps. The billboards at the bus terminals became decked with the photo-shopped faces of parliamentary candidates, micro buses topped with loudspeakers whirled around the open space and up and down the dirt roads. Election fever came fast and loud to Aglag, a dramatic transformation for the normally remote and dusty district.

The candidate selection in Aglag was remarkably diverse. Residents had the choice between household names from the world of television, film, music, and art, the children of big business figures, intellectuals educated abroad and a well-established political incumbent. The fundamental choice, however, was tripartite: to re-elect the ruling Democratic Party, to return the People’s Party to power after a 4-year absence, or to take a chance on a small party or independent candidate.

For the unemployed and chronically underemployed, election rallies are a good way to pass the time. Families attended meetings by both major parties, and those held by particularly famous independent candidates. The speakers were duly listened to, the disparities between their faces on the posters and in the flesh were commented on, the local drunks who dominated the microphones when the candidates opened the floor to residents were at turns held to be funny or embarrassing, and at the end, as we walked away on the half-finished new road, the same feeling was voiced: “Yes, they speak very nicely, but will they actually do anything for us?”

What a candidate will actually deliver is a question that many Mongolians were asking as they came to a decision over who to vote for. However, I would argue that it is a question that those with socio-economic power were asking with some certainty, and those living in ger districts were asking with near total disillusionment. This assertion leads to the central working argument of this post:

The notion of voter ‘choice’ in Mongolia is complicated by three factors: 1. the disconnection of political ideology from the major political parties, 2. the forces at work that influence voting through semi- and non-legal means, and 3. a phenomenon I will call “the inverted logic of the vote-return exchange”.

 

Political Disconnection

Almost no one I speak to in Mongolia seems to think about the two major parties as distinct ideological entities: politics is just politicians. Especially among disenfranchised ger district residents, people see politicians as powerful people looking to benefit themselves and their relatives and allies. It doesn’t matter what party they are from. Joining a party is just a decision driven by personal political motives, not a demonstration of allegiance to any particular world-view.

Of course, there are people who are very passionately involved in a party here and may have always been. But, at least in Aglag District, people usually do not start in one camp or another or even know how to define one party from the other. There is no ‘package’ of related political ideals that people from one side or another cleave to with the near-religious conviction witnessed, for example, in the UK referendum and US election campaigns that were taking place at the same time. Instead, people ask the pragmatic question: what was delivered over the last four years? Who do we think will deliver more for us over the next four? In fact some families have voted for three different parties over the last three elections.

 

Locust Migration: Tricks of the Trade

Mongolians are well aware of the semi- and non-legal goings on that take place in the lead up to an election. The stream of leaked videos and audio recordings that fill the news reports and invite endless online discussion fuels the general disillusionment and disappointment in the country’s political situation. There are a number of tricky practices that are carried out in order to tip the balance of the election one way or another. One is well-known enough to have been given its own nickname: tsartsaani nvvdel, locust migration. This evocative term refers to the ‘moving’ of people from one district to another for the sole purpose of voting. Shortly before the election citizens are moved on paper and will be re-located after they give their vote. Although laws are in place that put a hold on registering a change of location in the run up to the election day, they only stop those that do move from voting in the new district’s local government election. The parliamentary election is still open to influence.

Institutions carry out wholesale address changes. On election day buses are ordered to take entire companies from one district to another, or even all the way out into the countryside and the ‘locusts’ are clearly instructed on which party to vote for. Some people brought into these schemes by their bosses say that they ‘know’ that they have a free vote in the district they have been moved into, whereas others say they ‘know’ that if they don’t vote for the candidate they’ve been instructed to, their bosses will find out someway or another and they’ll lose their job.

 

The Inverted Logic of the Vote-Return Exchange

In democratic elections, there is a logic to the relationship between pre-election promises and post-election action.  Usually, it goes like this: to win a vote you have to make the right promises about what you are going to do after you are elected. If the public gives you the vote, you return the favour by fulfilling your promises to them.  I argue that in Mongolia, things are currently working in reverse in terms of the timing and direction of ‘giving’.

Instead of exchanging promises for votes, which then are returned as political action, candidates here give things to the voters (the ‘return’) before the election. They spend vast sums of money to encourage a vote for themselves, and then once they are elected, it’s the public’s turn to give back so that the politician can recoup the loses s/he incurred during the campaign and build further power and influence.

One example of this reverse logic in action is the new road. It was promised years ago, but was only delivered just before the election. Local residents commented at length on the timing and speed of its delivery: “Look, this road could have been done in a couple weeks, years ago! They are doing it right now so that we’ll vote for them. But if we take the gift now, we’ll be the one’s who pay later; as we did for the last 4 years. The politicians made themselves richer and richer while we got poorer and poorer.”

In his speech at the opening of the 2016 Mongolian Economic Forum, President Elbegdorj also alluded to the effects of this logic when he criticised the trend of failed businesspeople going into politics. They do so, the president said, because the power they serve to gain will give them an opportunity to rebuild their own wealth. You will have to spend money to gain power, but once you do, it will be time to give back, not to those that voted for you, but your own network of relatives and allies.

 

Personal Pragmatic Voting

When politics is politicians, and voters are bussed from here to there, I would argue an intensely personal and pragmatic logic takes over. Most people in the upper socioeconomic brackets have a relative somewhere involved in politics and they are therefore both on the one hand obliged to vote for them, and on the other hand, have the most to potentially gain from supporting that relative into power. Even the rich who are disillusioned about the state of politics and complain that their own relatives seem never to be satisfied still admit that, when it comes down to it, you vote for who you have to. For the poorer ger district residents, what happens before the election may be more beneficial for them than what happens after. Due to the inverted logic, the disenfranchised serve to gain more while politicians court their votes. Once they are elected, people say they will only serve themselves.

In the end, they didn’t pave the new road in Aglag District and after only a few days of heavy rain, its surface quickly deteriorated.

But then again, one road wasn’t enough to get the Democratic Party re-elected there anyway.

 

[1] All names and locations have been changed.

Thank you to G. Gerelsuren for contributing research to the piece.

 

Political Atmospheres in the Lead-up to the Parliamentary Elections, 2016

By Rebecca Empson, on 17 August 2016

This is the second in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections that were held on June 29th.

 

Ulaanbaatar is dusty, bleak and windy. Waiting for the bus, I am forced to seek momentary refuge in a KFC doorway when, out of nowhere, the sky turns an ominous brownish yellow. High-speed wind torpedoes through the city and lashes across my body filling my nose and mouth with dust. I haven’t learnt the art of always wearing a scarf around my neck to protect against such moments. The climate is unpredictable and so is the political atmosphere. Like political life itself the storm appears to come out of nowhere.

It’s early May 2016 and there is still some ice on the Tuul river. Snow can be seen on the mountains to the South. Workmen are starting to put down new pavements and are planting trees along the roadsides. The news reports that the police are undergoing crash courses in English. Everything must be in place for ASEM (the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting).  In contrast, deserted construction projects lie in wait for new investment. Small shops are getting rid of stock before they close down, with sales offering up to 30-40% off. Rumours spread that a measles epidemic has erupted and infant moralities are spiralling out of control across the city. No doubt the government will hide all of this from its foreign visitors when they arrive later in the summer.

Navigating through different visions

Navigating through different visions

 

With the so-called ‘economic crisis’ two things have become apparent. Where the rich are stuck with unfinished property and dormant mining licences they cannot act on, the poor have lots of cheap goods, now mostly broken and used for something else, but which they bought on credit and have to pay off. Everyone talks about debt and its vast accumulation. It is certain that the Democratic Party will not be re-elected, but who will take their place? Will it be a coalition? Will any of the Independent candidates be elected? What of the new and emerging parties – why do they seem to implode through internal factions?

empty office buildings

Empty Office Buildings

 

In the afternoon of the 4th May, I receive an SMS message from a friend that a Mercedes-Benz has just driven past a bus stop in the centre of town and thrown hundreds of thousands of tögrög out of the window at people waiting for the bus. Could this be a political move related to the elections? Is it just the tip of the iceberg of many more such events? If so, who is the man in the car? Through what connections has he got hold of such large amounts of cash? By the end of the day, and on (apparent) police investigation, it is confirmed that this was simply the action of a man who had been arguing with his wife. The speculations die out and the event is soon forgotten.

Abandond mine site

Abandoned Mine Site

 

On the 11th April, a prominent politician and businessman’s offices are raided at the Bayangol Hotel, presumed, in part, due to the on-going ‘railway scandal’ where miles and miles of purchased tracks have been left to rust on the steppe. A large group of people, including the national judo team and various politicians come out to support him at the location. Special forces police officers can be seen seizing boxes and taking them away live on TV, but he’s never arrested himself. ‘We’re just really living in a society where the law is no longer the law’, his daughter laments. Speculations about internal factions aside, in this gesture of power we are invited to be reminded that the state holds ultimate power.

Stalled buildings

Stalled Building Work

 

After the event, rumours circulate about future arrests and a list that has been drawn up with the names of those who might be targeted next. People in the countryside speculate that money laundering by big bosses has triggered flows of cash to purchase antlers from the forests. At night, people have been seen trying to sell their government-allocated shares to eager Chinese buyers (shares which the government later agreed to buy back), and during the day the atmosphere is intermittently hijacked by the stopping of traffic to allow blacked out cars with sirens to dart past with ASEM-related visitors as they speed through the city. The façade of buildings along the main roads are being painted. Motorway shoulders are being raised to hide unsightly slums.

The political atmosphere is characterised by a sense of fits and starts. Things suddenly emerge as if from nowhere. They are followed by a period of intense speculation and a search for connections and comprehension. Then, just as quickly, they seem to dissipate into the background again and things return to some sense of normalcy.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic Bottles

 

As the weather warms, the Tuul river begins to thaw. In the mornings men and women, sometimes with children in tow, come to gather plastic bottles along its banks, carrying them home in plastic woven bags on their backs. Every now and then these people travel back by bus from Zaisan sitting awkwardly with their enormous luggage slipping across the floor into the elites who live here. As it gets warmer, I walk across the river and up into the mountains beyond. A small trickle of water appears, but instead of this leading to a large torrent, a few days later the water disappears completely. People speculate that the government has syphoned off part of the river to provide water for the new ASEM buildings being built for the foreign visitors, providing further evidence, they lament, that they can’t ‘carrying the state’ correctly. Two days later, however, the river begins to flow again when the ice thaws further up in the mountains, and just as suddenly the speculations disappear.

Asem buildings in construction

ASEM Buildings

 

Recalling these events hints at the way in which politics is currently discussed in Mongolia. That is as rumour about the motives of politicians and businessmen, rather than an actual discussion about policy. The drying up of the Tuul river and the rumours which surrounded it, as well as the lack of interest when the actual reason was revealed, is just one such case. In the lead up to the Parliamentary elections this year, people were constantly searching for meaning – connections and explanations – in actions they found difficult to read and understand. In fact this searching for meaning and speculation is what politics is in Mongolia. It is the speculation of connections and motivations beyond the visible and tangible. To understand politics – or to think politics – is to understand the underside of things, beyond the way things appear to the ordinary eye, to uncover the workings of a kind of magic or religion.

‘Nothing can be understood’, one friend recounted, ‘if the networks underneath are not known and understood’. He elaborated further, ‘if you don’t understand the motivations of individuals then politics in Mongolia is impossible to understand’. Searching for the motivations behind actions that seem strange is –sometimes – the only way people are able to process the wayward atmosphere that seems to characterise so much of political life in Mongolia. Speculation and circulation of rumours, of factions, motivations, alliances and actions of individuals dominates political talk. And while the new younger politicians are seen as potentially hopeful (they have not, as yet, the trail of speculated exchange of favours attached to them), they are all locked within the dominant parties and have little room to make a mark. It is as if, tightly held within alliances of debt and obligation, there is no room for new political visions to emerge. Everything is understood and explained as driven by personal business gains that bind people to each other and constrains as well as determines their actions.

Layers of Speculation

Layers of Speculation

 

In this atmosphere politics, as we might imagine it, appears a kind of empty shell. People feel they are living in an economic system (capitalism) rather than a political one (democracy now appears jaded and opaque). And because the economic system persists, regardless of who is in charge, politics itself appears defunct, a point that makes attaching the term ‘crisis’ to the word ‘economic’ a kind of political parody (cf. Roitman 2014, and Rebekah Plueckhahn on the political atmosphere of stalling and suspension after the elections). In this light, we might ask what work the term ‘crisis’ does in narratives about the economy in Mongolia? From one perspective it appears to be a political move to try to contain the moment in a specific temporal framework – a fallacy, of course, when it is now realised as the norm. Here, the ordinary is the speculation and incoherence of political life, there is no progress of access, or threat to another. The economic crisis is not an exception to the ordinary. There is, in many ways, a sense of a ‘crisis ordinary’, of […] ‘a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what is overwhelming’ (Berlant 2011:10). In attending to these stories as they unfold, maybe politics is not such an empty shell after all. In these ways of navigating – sometimes overwhelming relations of debt, both monetary and social, and the complex entangled relations of obligation and favour that flow in their wake – life is always intensely political. It is just being played out in a different sphere from that which any election promises would have us believe.

 

All photos © Rebecca Empson.