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.
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”.
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.
 All names and locations have been changed.
Thank you to G. Gerelsuren for contributing research to the piece.