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Democracy without opposition: Dominant parties, the election, and the lack of an opposition in Mongolia

By ucsadul, 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).

Figure 1. John Kerry, US Secretary of State in Mongolia

Figure 1. John Kerry, US Secretary of State in Mongolia[i]

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.

Figure 2. Gan-Od VS Nara

Figure 2. Gan-Od VS Nara [iii]

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.

Figure 3. Mongolia in the MANAN

Figure 3. Mongolia in the MANAN [v]

Figure 4. Tomorrow without MANAN

Figure 4. Tomorrow without MANAN

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).

Figure 5. National Labour Party: ‘New Political Force’

Figure 5. National Labour Party: ‘New Political Force’ [vi]

Figure 6. Independence and Unity Party: ‘Leading political force’

Figure 6. Independence and Unity Party: ‘Leading political force’  [vii]

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].

[ii] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4t544g4ztM [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

[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].

[vi] Available at: http://www.news.mn/r/211280 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

[vii] Available at: http://www.ub.life/political/210 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

[viii] The law is available at: http://www.legalinfo.mn/law/details/11558 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

[ix] The full version of the letter is available at: http://www.unen.mn/content/63693.shtml [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

18 Responses to “Democracy without opposition: Dominant parties, the election, and the lack of an opposition in Mongolia”

  • 1
    Ann M. Altman wrote on 30 June 2016:

    On June 10 2014, I returned to the USA after a three-week visit to Mongolia. During my visit, I met with and lectured to Democrats of all ages in Ulaanbaator, Darkhan, Muren, Uliastai and Ovorkhangai. Here is the open letter that I wrote to President Elbegdorj at that time. It remains relevant today.

    While the Democratic administration in Ulaanbaator seems to be improving everyday life for the average Mongolian citizen – at least, in the center of the city – the Democratic Party seems to have lost its way and to have forgotten its mission, if it ever had one.

    There are two major political parties in Mongolia but both are modeled on the old-style Communist Party, with powerful Party organizations and little regard for the average Mongolian citizen. Democracy seems to have disintegrated into a choice, every few years, between the least objectionable of two, increasingly indistinguishable, organizations.

    Young people are choosing Party allegiance based on a cynical calculation of which Party will help them get a job, advance in their career, and make the most money. As a result, the Party that is viewed as most corrupt becomes the most attractive to many who hope to benefit from the corruption.

    Neither major Party articulates a clear and simple platform, and neither Party is pledged to improve the life of the average Mongolian.

    However, while the Parties are becoming indistinguishable in terms of the total absence of coherent principles, members of the two Parties rarely come into contact with one another. For example, one woman told me, after I had lectured to a group of MP women, that she has been a member of the DP for 25 years and had never sat in a room with members of the MP. Moreover, a man who belonged to the DP had been afraid to come to the meeting because the local governing body was run by members of the MP. Even though Party allegiance can be strong in the USA, such segregation is unheard of.

    The absence of readily apparent principles and ideology in Mongolian politics has led, as far as I can tell, to the division of the adult population into three major groups: the generation that rebelled so courageously against totalitarianism in 1989/1990; the generation that grew up under totalitarianism but tried to establish democratic governance; and the young generation, who have no respect for political principles (since they rarely encounter them) but are looking for a focus for the idealism that is so often inseparable from youthfulness.

    Just as children learn their mother tongue, Mongolians who rebelled in 1989/1990 had inevitably absorbed a “mother politic.” In other words, the Communist form of politics and Communist political parties were deeply ingrained in them and it was, unsurprisingly, the Communist model that they took as the model for their political parties.

    Truly democratic politics draw their strength and power from the people and not from unelected Party officials. In a democracy, candidates for election are chosen locally, in the constituencies that they will serve. As a result, candidates understand their constituencies and are accountable to those who vote for them because they live among the citizens who will vote for them.

    At many of my lectures, I asked the audience, “Which Party works for the good of the average Mongolian citizen?” In every case, the answer was “Neither.” This answer is particularly disturbing because most of my audiences were DP members.

    At one of my lectures, after I had returned to Ulaanbaator from the west, I said, “What we need is to inject the DP with a huge syringe, filled with idealistic principles and young people.” To my surprise, the audience burst into spontaneous applause – the first time this has ever happened to me during my five lecture trips to Mongolia!!

    I propose that the courageous generation of 1989/1990 link arms with the generation born since that time and that, together, they articulate a real Democratic platform that puts the needs of ALL Mongolians ahead of the ambitions of special-interest groups and Lexus-hungry politicians.

    I believe that the revolutionaries of 1989/1990 understood then and still understand that democracy is more than going to the polls every couple of years to cast a vote for one of two or three almost identical parties, each of which is modeled on the old Communist Party.

    I also believe that the young generation is yearning for a country in which money, advancement and status are no longer the only goals.

    I believe that young Mongolians want a country in which achievement in any field is not inseparably linked to allegiance to one political party or another.

    The Democratic Party has 18 months to pull itself together before the next election. If it is to win that election it needs to restore the value of the tugrik and to offer the country a clear choice – a choice between a Party that puts the needs of the average citizen first (the DP) and a Party that exists, exclusively, for the enrichment and advancement of its members (the MP).

    A Party that puts the needs of the average citizen first is a Party founded on transparency and accountability, with candidates drawn from the communities that will elect them. It is a Party that understands that every citizen has a right to know how every tugrik of his or her taxes is spent.

    Any elected or appointed official who refuses to account for every tugrik received from taxpayers does not belong in the Democratic Party – and he or she certainly does not belong in a Democratic Party that hopes to win the next election.

    Confidence in the DP as the Party of transparency and accountability, and as the Party that is working to improve the life of the average Mongolian, is essential if the DP is to have any chance of winning the elections in 2016.

  • 2
    Bumochir wrote on 9 July 2016:

    Thank Ann M Altman! Thanks for sharing your letter to the President. I am glad that we share some common findings specially the one on the difference of the two leading parties. It was interesting to discover your comment on the “old communist” type of party. I wish to find out more about its features your are addressing. Even though this is not a surprise it is something that can be furher demostrated. It will be interesting to find out how some of the old communism has been adopted and carried in the politics of “Democratic Mongolia”. “Democracy” in Mongolia is indeed certainly different from the one in the US and elsewhere. Mongolia is constructing its own democracy which might not have principal features of “western democracy”. It is now called “ardchilal”, if not “democracy”. In the construction of its unique feature of “democracy”, Mongolia is in fact lost in and muddled in corrupted politics. Probably it is how democracy works in its early stage. Or maybe it is how “democracy” works in many other ocuntries, and Mongolia is only presenting its extreme. Is there a pure seperation between “democracy” and “corruption”? Is not corruption is always pasrt of “democracy”, while ideals of “democracy” always wish to have no corruption. I was also wondering whether the president ever repsonded to this letter.

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    Mr.Sai San Aik wrote on 2 July 2016:

    Its good to learn about TRANSITION in Mongolia.Thanks.If someone in ucl ,can have a look,at BURMA(MYANMAR),many races,cannot come to ,COMMON UNDRTSTANDING,now fighting racial war/institutionalized racism,for 60 years.How to come out from shell of racism,to allow equality/unionism.Most are mixed blood, can racial/anthropology dna testing help?

  • 4
    Bumochir wrote on 9 July 2016:

    Thank you Sai San Aik! Thank for sharing your concern on issues in Burma. I am new at UCL and not sure whether anyone working in Burma. I am also not sure whether DNA testing to solve racial problems. It might get the tension even worse for some. For me “race” is an eternal problem of human societies. The West has been trying to win racism only in the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, according to what is now happening in the UK (Brexit) and USA (Presidentual election campaign), I expect to see more racism not less.

  • 5
    How Gifts Grant Candidates Power | UCL Emerging Subjects Blog wrote on 1 September 2016:

    […] Democracy without opposition: Dominant parties, the election, and the lack of an opposition in Mongo… […]

  • 6
    “Shakhaanii Business”: Shared Debt, Privatization of Profit, and (Re-)Emergent Corruption Discourses in Mongolia | UCL Emerging Subjects Blog wrote on 2 March 2017:

    […] one that will favor a small group of politicians, working together across party lines (see Bumochir Dulam’s post on Mongolia’s deficit of institutionalized and regulated opposition po…) and foreigners (with some of the major politicians accused hailing from minority ethnicities […]

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