The Price of an Election: Split hopes and political ambivalence in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar
By Guest Contributor , on 13 July 2017
This post was written by Liz Fox, a UCL ESRC-funded anthropology PhD candidate affiliated to the Emerging Subjects project.
[The material for this blog post was collected from a variety of sources that have been anonymised. For the privacy and safety of my many interlocutors, their stories have been aggregated. It does not refer to any specific place or people.]
“Come quick! They’re giving money after all!” Baatar rushed into the ger where his relatives were sitting, discussing the Mongolian parliamentary election that was taking place that day. The road to the election had been both long and disappointing and all present were in agreement that it had been the “dirtiest” election the country had seen in its 26 years of democracy. From the start there was mudslinging, or as it is known in Mongolian, “black PR” (har pr). Each of the three presidential candidates had been accused of one scandal or another, whether it was Ganbaatar’s (of the MAHN, or Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) 50,000 KRW bribe from the Moon religious group, Battulga’s (of the AN, or Democratic Party) 44 companies and messy family life, including a Russian wife and a son connected to drugs, or Enkhbold’s (of the MAN, or Mongolian People’s Party) selling of land when he was UB mayor, his feature in two secretly-filmed viral videos that tie him to bribery and the selling of government positions, and the accusations that he is actually Chinese. Indeed, when the candidates were announced, many Mongolians said there was no one to choose from, they are all as bad as each other and that it was an “unelectable election” (songuuldgui songuul).
I arrived in an Eastern ger district of Ulaanbaatar mere days before the first round election and learned that there had been an upswing in support for Ganbaatar, the Revolutionary Party’s Candidate. For an area that had preferred the MAN over the AN in the previous year’s parliamentary election, the outright rejection of the ruling party’s presidential candidate seemed surprising; and yet, Enkhbold was said to be the worst of the worst. Ganbaatar, the outsider candidate, had managed to differentiate himself in the eyes of ger district voters from the two big party candidates as being an honest and upstanding man. Similar to the popular support that Jawkhlan the singer had galvanised in the parliamentary election a year before, this year Ganbaatar was felt to have a “heart” for the people of Mongolia. Like Jawkhlan, Ganbaatar’s lack of high level education was even seen as a bonus: “What university did Chinggis Khaan graduate from, huh?” a middle-aged supporter asked.
Two nights before the election, a ger district-dwelling family and I sat in front of the TV in a small brick home, watching the final debate. The family were open with their criticisms, tutting and shaking their heads at almost everything Enkhbold and Battulga said. They spoke back to the figures on the television regularly with a “Shaaal hudlaa!” (What a liar!) or a sarcastic “Oo saihan yarij bn” (How nicely he speaks). In contrast, Ganbaatar’s earnest propositions were followed with resounding expressions of approval, “Yag zuw!”, “Unen shvv” or “Tiishdee”. It was clear that this election had become largely driven by emotion. For those on the margins who have seen 26 year of democracy lead only to increasing inequality and economic turmoil, the fat cats at the top eating the country’s natural bounty, sweet words and promises from wealthy politicians mean little. “They’re all the same,” people repeated, “they’ll say anything and then, when they’re elected, they’ll do nothing but eat”.
While there were rumours of cash hand outs in the run-up to the parliamentary election last year, politicians also used fairly “clean” techniques in their attempts to attract votes, such as building a new road or the distribution of the Tavan Tolgoi shares. This year, however, cash was flowing everywhere. Phone calls were made back and forth and what felt like hundreds of cars descended on the neighbourhood. Suddenly the call would go around, “the car is here!” there would be a rush to check for one’s ID card and four or five people at a time would leave the ger to meet the car. After the doors closed, each person would be handed a 20,000MNT note and told, “Vote for Enkhbold! After you’ve voted, bring your little white paper receipt back to us”. The passengers would then be dropped off a little distance from the local school that served as a polling station to avoid police detection. The party workers, temporary employees who stood to gain a 300,000 MNT salary for 20 days of work, would also receive payment according to the number of ‘white papers’ they collected from voters. In some areas, parties were offering 100,000MNT for 30 papers, in other areas it was 100,000 for 5. An instant economy of white papers then sprung up: people bartered over them, sold them to one another and told each other to deliver them to so-and-so. As matters unfolded on the ground, people were also glued to Facebook checking for news. A Democratic Party car carrying 120 million MNT to be distributed to voters in Western Mongolian provinces caused a stir. It was clear that both parties would do whatever it took to win.
Ger district families were quick to take advantage of the parties’ activities. Some relatives who live in the countryside but were visiting the city had wrongly heard that they could vote anywhere. Believing they could vote in Ulaanbaatar, they didn’t return to the countryside in time for the election. That, however, did not stop them from getting in the car and pledging to vote for Enkhbold in exchange for an easy 20,000MNT. A couple residents under the voting age of 18 were able to collect the money. Every person I know who took the MAN party’s money and voted, voted for Ganbaatar. Indeed, people took great satisfaction in having out-hustled the “hustlers” (luiwerchin) who had tried to buy their votes. Although the money was a bonus and everyone chased it, there remained some ambivalence and debate over whether it was truly clean. “They’ll say they bought us poor people’s votes cheaply,” one woman exclaimed passionately, the 20,000MNT note hidden in her clenched fist, “but they’re wrong! They didn’t buy anything. We didn’t even vote for their candidate. And anyway, why shouldn’t we take the money? They sit up there eating everything without a care for us out here. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little back from what’s been stolen from us!” While there was disappointment with the electoral proceedings, no one seemed completely cynical about the election itself. People voted for Ganbaatar with their hearts and truly hoped he would win, even as they worried that with the amount of money being splashed around by the big parties, their outsider candidate would have no chance.
Polls closed at 10pm and the election circus around the bus stop began to clear. People returned home to hear the 10 o’clock announcement of the early results. There was great shock and happiness when it became clear that Enkhbold had done poorly. The local area had indeed elected Ganbaatar, despite the payments, and the countryside relatives were relieved to see that their homeland had also supported Ganbaatar, without their votes. While the AN candidate Battulga lead the race, Ganbaatar’s strong showing looked like it would force a run-off election as no candidate would reach the minimum 50% of the vote. That prospect was incredibly exciting as people felt sure in a two-horse, second-round race Ganbaatar would win. The results continued to come it as the night progressed, the family remained glued to the television until around 2am. By that point, the picture seemed clear and the large extended family one by one fell asleep in their little brick home.
The shock upon awakening to hear that in the night Enkhbold had somehow overtaken Ganbaatar cannot be overstated. Apparently, one province’s election centre had lost power during the count and when the power was reconnected, the numbers favoured Enkhbold enough to push him ahead of Ganbaatar. In the ger district, it was universally considered a fraud and a lie. People felt for Ganbaatar, they argued he had run a clean race – unable to raise the funds to distribute the kinds of cash that the other two candidates threw around – and yet, or perhaps therefore, he had lost. Some days of confusion and dismay followed. There was debate over how exactly the second round would be organised, but eventually it became clear Ganbaatar had been cut from the race: the second round would have no clean candidate.
In the days between the first and second round elections, the only positive people could find in the situation was the possibility that the second round election might encourage even bigger cash hand-outs. Ger district residents had heard from countryside relatives that up to 50,000MNT per vote had been being distributed and were excited at the prospect another cash bonus. This hope, however, was only half the story. Politically-speaking, people remained committed to Ganbaatar, or at the very least committed against the two remaining candidates. A plan began to form to submit black ballots at the very least as a protest against Ganbaatar’s stolen election and perhaps even to force a third election with three new candidates.
Rumours continued to swirl about the dark methods by which Enkhbold would assure his own victory: apparently, his party workers would collect people’s registration numbers and then ‘hack’ the electronic voting machines to ensure that those votes would go to him. Indeed, two days before the election a relative arrived at the home asking the family to write down their registration numbers and promising to give them 20,000. As it happened only two siblings were home at the time, one 19, the other 23. What followed was a tense but jovial negotiation. Their uncle tried to use his relative authority to ‘encourage’ them to write down all the eligible family members’ ID numbers, while the other two slid between positions, sometimes deferring to their absent mother’s authority (their mother being the uncle’s elder sister) telling him to ask her, and other times insisting that they be given the money up front or that they would only sell for a higher price. Eventually the uncle left to try to collect the neighbours’ ID numbers, telling the two he would be back in the evening.
The morning of the election came and went without event. The previous day the ruling party had released a sudden notice that the ‘children’s money’ (20,000MNT/month per child) that had been stopped for all but the poorest families since February would suddenly be restored: the full amount being automatically deposited into people’s accounts. Queues at the bank reached into the hundreds. For the ger district family, this development was a disappointment. As a poor family they had been collecting the children’s money every month as a vital part of their monthly income. As such, the windfall that came to richer families did not come to them at all: further proof in fact that the ruling party didn’t care about the poorest citizens. It wasn’t until the evening until Baatar burst into the ger announcing that there would be pay-outs after all. This time no car came and the eligible voters walked to the polling station. A phone call told them to wait behind a small shop that sells second-hand clothes. Then a further call told them to go behind the school. A third call then told them to vote first and collect the money afterwards. The family duly deposited their blank ballots and then began to congregate with neighbours and relatives outside the polling station. Rumours spread this way and that, and yet no money appeared. A middle-aged man told me, “It’s sad isn’t it to see how we Mongolians will run after only 20,000MNT. But what can we do? We need the money and if they’re going to give it out why shouldn’t we have some?” Tired of waiting at the bus stop, people headed home. Eventually that night the money came: another 20,000MNT each.
Despite his efforts, both black and white, Enkhbold did not win the election. Battulga defeated him and will be inaugurated today (the 10th). Ger district residents seemed to have lost interest in politics the day after the election. Some people even said, “Maybe it would have been better if Enkhbold had won: what can a AN president do in the face of a majority MAN parliament?” People were proud of their blank ballots: around 100,000 were cast across the country, but not enough to force another election. For the most part, however, things returned to normal: politicians don’t care about the ger district and their chronic absence speaks louder than the occasional sweet words ger district resident’s hear around elections. Ger district residents resumed their lives, briefly 40,000MNT richer but without any hope that positive change would be on the horizon.