Democracy without opposition: Dominant parties, the election, and the lack of an opposition in Mongolia
By Bumochir Dulam, on 29 June 2016
This is the first in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections.
Since the early 1990s Mongolia has been a parliamentary democracy. During his visit to Mongolia recently, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, hailed Mongolia an “oasis of democracy” (Torbati 2016), a fact which, given the current elections, I think, needs to be questioned. In a democracy opposition parties and individuals (individual MPs, groups and political parties etc) are one of the “milestones of democracy” (Dahl 1966: xiii-xiv). For example, on the 23rd January, 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) “adopted Resolution 1601 (2008) on “Procedural guidelines on the rights and responsibilities of the opposition in a democratic parliament”. The resolution emphasized the role of political opposition as “an essential component of a well-functioning democracy” and advocated a certain institutionalization of parliamentary opposition rights, laying down a number of guidelines through which parliaments of member states are invited to draw inspiration (Nussenberger et al. 2010: 3).
The following blog post argues that Mongolia severely lacks professional, institutionalised, formalised and legally-protected permanent political opposition. According to the Council of Europe, democracy without opposition is “dysfunctional” (ibid: 7).
Every four years, Mongolia reaches its maximal ‘politicization’ (uls törjih) during the parliamentary election. Political life is revealed through a variety of people, such as candidates standing for election, including singers, actors, wrestlers, boxers, doctors, scholars, lawyers, economists, activists, protestors, stakeholders, business owners, government employees, and politicians etc. Political campaigns often become intimate, revealing personal affairs and relationships, or discussing candidates’ history discovering ‘unusual’ occupations such as shireenii hüühen meaning “table woman” in bars. This year, a campaigns against a female candidate, who had a history of working as a ‘table woman’, invited a famous transgender public figure N. Gan-Od who had the same job experience as “table woman”, to reveal information about the job description.[ii] Conflicts, fights, protests, demonstrations and even riots happen during and after elections. The 2008 parliamentary election result lead to a devastating riot on the 1st of July, when 5 people were killed, 300 injured, and 700 arrested, resulting in the first and only state of emergency being declared in the history of Mongolia.
The period leading up to election also gives rise to a number of active oppositional political forces, which lay dormant most of the time. We need to question whether these are actually political opposition, because many of them tend to be temporary, occasional, superficial and inefficient. All of the candidates prioritise their purpose to win a formal political position in government rather than opposing concrete issues, decisions, policies and actions of existing or potential rulers.
Since the 1990s, Mongolia has had two dominant parties currently known as the People’s Party and the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has been the main political opposition for years, except from when they were in power from 1996 to 2000. After the People’s Party dominated Mongolia’s politics for 8 long years, in 2008 the Democratic Party lost in the election, which caused public anger, desperation and devastation, leading to the July 2008 riot. In 2012, finally the Democratic Party won the election again and took the lead of the country. Unfortunately, their rule failed to meet the public expectation of those who had anxiously waited and supported them for a decade since their rule ended in 2000.
Many feel unsatisfied with the past four years of political performance of the Democratic Party who have left the country in severe economic crisis with massive national external debt of around 22 billion USD. A recent IMF report warns that “Mongolia is at high risk of public debt distress” (Rodlauer et al 2015: 1). Economist H. Batsuuri writes that “current generation of Mongolians are considered to be unfortunate people as they have original sin, or foreign denominated debt, leaving to the next generations” (Batsuuri 2015: 4).
The failure of the Democratic Party has puzzled many voters, wondering if they should return to the People’s Party, which was largely hated and rejected in the 2008 riot and lost in the 2012 election, or if they should turn to smaller third parties and new political forces. But the People’s Party has multiple reasons to be partly blamed for the crisis and difficulties grew in the last four years of time. Starting at the end of 2014, the Democratic Party started another coalition with the People’s Party, which lasted for only a couple of months. A news article by Kh. Törbold compared the coalition of the two parties from 2008, which was often depicted with the name MANAN (or AN+MAN), which literally means fog in Mongolian (Törbold 2014). MAN is the popular acronym for Mongol Ardyn Nam (Mongolian People’s Party), while AN refers to the Ardchilsan Nam (Democratic Party). In this way, the two main parties repeatedly failed to perform a role of opposing political forces. Instead the coalition, corporation and conspiracy of the two party leaders dramatically increased, except at times of election. The two parties have a broader history of coalition governments from 1990 to 2015 (cf. Elisa 2012). In addition to their coalitions, there is a growing suspicion concerning corruption and conspiracy of the two party leaders. Many election campaigns appeal to voters not to choose MANAN, expressing narratives that question the two parties’ unfulfilled democratic duty to be politically opposed to one another. Election forecasts reveal significant downturns in support for the two leading parties. A poll conducted by the Sant Maral Foundation in March 2016 showed 38.3% support for the People’s Party and 31.7% support for the Democratic Party. Citizens are evidently disappointed in both of the parties and no longer trust either of them. Significantly, 42.3% of polled voters supported a proposal to abandon the multi-party parliamentary system in favour of an authoritarian form of government in which the president exercises absolute power,[iv] similar to Russia, North Korea and most of the Central Asian states.
This situation has created an opportunity for other political parties and opposition forces to win an increased number of seats in the next parliament. For many smaller political parties, independent candidates standing for the election and all other political forces, this is a political advantage that has been unprecedented in the past 26 years. As a consequence, in February 2015, the National Labour Party (Khödölmöriin Ündesnii Nam) held its very first forum and declared itself the “new political force” (uls töriin shine khüchin) in Mongolia. Member of the Labour Party S. Borgil, who was later elected as the party leader, stated that “two political parties dominated Mongolia over the last 25 years, creating a MANAN tyranny” (Gan 2015). In April 2016, prior the election, the Independence and Unity Party (Tusgaar Tognol Ev Negdeliin Nam) – a relatively new party not well known to the public – proclaimed itself “not the third political power, but the leading power” (Uyanga 2016).
The two dominant parties have sought to conspire against the possible rise of third political powers in the 2016 parliamentary election, amending the law on elections on the 25th of December 2015[viii], six months before the June 2016 election, to replace mixed-member proportional representation with a first-past-the-post voting system. According to T. Edwards (2016) the amendment “handicaps smaller parties” and “erodes democracy” in Mongolia. The public, civil society, organizations, NGOs, smaller parties and many others expressed strong resistance to the amendment, but with little impact. The famous poet Ts. Khulan addressed a letter to the President of Mongolia Ts. Elbegdorj, in which she blamed the President for not applying his veto right to block the amendment.[ix] The latest conspiracies of the two parties on the amendment of the electoral law have left Mongolia without the prospect of a strong political opposition. In addition to the amended election law, the minority parties are all handicapped by other problems and disadvantages. For example, the above-mentioned two political parties are relatively new, while older minority political parties have often been founded by and organised around one strong political figure who never resigns from the official position of party leader. Additionally, most of these parties remain inactive between elections, without performing the role of active political opposition. Because of unequal power relationships within these parties, single leader-based parties lack the professionalism and institutionalization required to form a strong political opposition.
But the major problems of the opposition in Mongolia do not only lie in the political parties themselves, so much as in the absence of legislation to support a political opposition – for instance, there is no law or constitutional articles governing the rights and responsibilities of opposition parties. Needed are rules guaranteeing minority participation in parliamentary procedures, giving rights to supervise and scrutinize government policy; the right to block or delay majority decisions; the right to demand constitutional review of laws, and so on (Nussenberger 2015: 22). In the Council of Europe report on political opposition, Nussenberger et al. listed the following duties of a legally protected and institutionalized political opposition:
The function of the opposition is not to rule. Instead the opposition may have other functions. How these may best be listed is arguable, but among them may be the following: to offer political alternatives; articulate and promote the interests of their voters (constituents); offer alternatives to the decisions proposed by the government and the majority representative; improve parliamentary decision-making procedures by ensuring debate, reflection and contradiction; scrutinise the legislative and budgetary proposals of the government; supervise and oversee the government and the administration; enhance stability, legitimacy, accountability and transparency in the political processes (ibid: 7).
Mongolians are blaming the ruling party for current crisis, but it is not only the rulers who can be blamed. The political culture is also at fault, as seen from the absence of a political opposition willing to engage and react against unfair, illegal, inaccurate and improper acts by the ruling parties. To make its democracy an “oasis”, at least Mongolia needs to formalize, institutionalize and validate its political opposition.
Batsuuri, H. (2015). Original Sin: Is Mongolia Facing an External Debt Crisis? The North East Asian Economic Review, 3 (2), pp. 3-15.
Dahl, R. (1966). Preface. In: Robert Dahl (ed.) Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. xiii-xxi.
Edwards, T. (2016). Mongolia’s new election rules handicap smaller parties, clear way for two-horse race. Reuters, [Online] Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mongolia-election-idUSKCN0YB046 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Elisa, T. (2012). Evsliin zasgiin gazruudyn ergej zadarsan tüükh. New.mn, [Online]. Available at: http://www.news.mn/r/127486 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Gan, M. (2015). Uls töriin shine khüchin baiguulakhaa medegdlee. Gogo News. Available at: http://news.gogo.mn/r/156123 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Nussenberger, A. Özbudun, E., and Sejersted, F. (2010). On the Role of the Opposition in a Democratic Parliament. [Online] Strassbourg: Nussenberger, Özbudun and Sejersted, pp. 3, 7, 22. Available at: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2010)025-e [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Torbati, Y. (2016). Kerry hails Mongolia as ‘oasis of democracy’ in tough neighborhood. Reuters, [Online]. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-mongolia-idUSKCN0YR02T [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Törbold, Kh. (2015). Shine zasgiin gazryn ehnii shiidlüüd. Eagle, [Online]. Available at: http://politics.eagle.mn/content/read/26016.htm [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Rodlauer, M., Miyazaki, M., and Kähkönen, S. and Verghis, M. (2015). Mongolia: Staff Report for the 2015 Article IV Consultation – Debt Sustainability Analysis. [Online]. Available at: https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/dsa/pdf/2015/dsacr15109.pdf [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
Uyanga, Kh. (2016). G. Uyanga: Uls töriin shine khüchin bish, tergüülekh khüchniig zarlan tunkhaglaj baina. UB Life. [Online] Available at: http://www.ub.life/political/210 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
[i] Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-mongolia-idUSKCN0YR02T [Accessed 25 Jun. 2015].
[iii] Available at: http://resource.zone.mn/hotnews/images/2016/6/af7f2078cf57886348ed0bd4eea30e9c/Snapshot_2016-06-06_130651_700x700.png [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
[iv] Available at: http://www.santmaral.mn/sites/default/files/SMPBM16.Mar%20(updated)_0.pdf [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].
[v] Available at: http://resource.news.mn/politics/photo/2011/1/494a643b7fbca712/c20d116aadd05f5bbig.jpg [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].