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The Price of an Election: Split hopes and political ambivalence in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar

Guest Contributor13 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.

 

 

How Gifts Grant Candidates Power

LaurenBonilla31 August 2016

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

Lauren Bonilla and Tuya Shagdar co-authored this blog.  It is based on our collaborative research on the social life of political gifts and cash transfers in the Mongolian economy.  We are currently writing a larger journal article on this topic and will present our research at the Emerging Subjects project workshop to be held at the National University of Mongolia on November 15th, 2016.

 

According to Mongolia’s election law, parliamentary candidates are permitted only 18 days to campaign prior to the day before Election Day.  A short campaign period is meant, in theory, to curb excessive campaign spending and reduce the pre-election politicking fatigue of citizens.  In practice, however, the campaign season extends well before the 18 days.  For months before the parliamentary election, aspiring candidates employ an array of novel and costly tactics to attract public attention and support, notably though the giving of gifts.

In May, we (Tuya Shagdar and Lauren Bonilla) travelled to the geographic fringe of Mongolia in north-western Uvs province to study parliamentary election politics and rumours of gift-gifting before the official campaign period was set to begin.  It was a heated time for us to be doing research on the elections.  We learned this immediately when we arrived in the capital of Uvs, Ulaangom.  When we attempted to snap photos of the Democratic Party (DP) headquarters and the fleet of slick black Land Cruisers parked outside of it, a man in his twenties working for the party ran towards us and aggressively questioned what we were doing.  After warning us not to take photos and calming down a bit, he said to us, “You know what kind of period it is, right?” (Yamar uye baigaag medej baigaa biz dee).

Dem Headquarters

Democratic Party (DP) Headquarters in Ulaangom, Uvs. Photo by Tuya Shagdar.

 

Gifting in a Time of Crisis

Actually, for many people in Uvs the heat of the elections began to blaze after the beginning of the fire monkey lunar year in February.  Astrologists predicted that it was going to be one of the coldest and snowiest winters in Mongolia’s recent history, and this turned out to be true in Uvs.  Herders struggled to keep livestock alive as temperatures dropped below 40 degrees Celsius and deep snow prevented livestock from accessing pasture.  The physical, psychological, and financial effects of the harsh weather event, known as a dzud, were compounded by the absence of cash following a season of poor meat sales.

This difficult period provided an opening for aspiring parliamentary candidates to strategically make themselves known to both voters and to the political party they sought a nomination.[1]  Everyone we talked with in Ulaangom and a rural district in Uvs, Bokhmoron, talked about the “assistance” (tuslamj) that they or people in other districts received from individuals vying for a position a parliament.

The assistance families received was more than mere aid.  Take, for instance, the packages that Odongiin Tsogtgerel of the Teso Group distributed throughout rural Uvs.  Teso is a nationally-recognized food import and manufacturing company named after a district in Uvs (Tes) and run by a family originally from there.  The company distributed an estimated 30,000 MNT (around USD $13) worth of prepacked noodles and rice to households throughout the province.  On a number of occasions families hosting us prepared soups using the Teso products they received.  Perhaps they valued the food items and reserved them for special guests, or maybe they thought that we, unlike them, would actually enjoy eating carrot-infused processed noodles.

Teso’s AGI brand carrot-infused Lapsha noodles given as part of the dzud assistance package. Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

Man in Bokhmoron making us soup with the noodles he received in his dzud assistance package, even though he is not a herder who lost animals during the harsh winter.  Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

Just as every household had a bag of Teso foodstuffs from the assistance package in their cupboard, they also all had a Teso calendar hanging in their homeThe calendar came with the package and promoted the Teso brand.  Each month featured a different Teso business venture like imported Russian ice cream and mine drilling.  The bottom of every page featured the image and profile of the President of the company, Odongiin Tsogtgerel.  In May, the DP publically announced Tsogtgerel as one of its two parliamentary candidates for Uvs.

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Teso calendar given as part of the dzud assistance package.  April features the Lapsha noodle products given to households in Uvs. Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

Ondongiin Tsogtgerel, President of Teso Corporation: “In general if you are an entrepreneur who has new ideas to provide to the needs of others and if you are enjoying the work you do, the money will follow through. This is what I inherited from our father.”  Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

Including a calendar in the assistance package many months prior to being publicly announced as a candidate was a clever way for a businessman to promote his name and company to voters.  Though the package made no reference to his political campaign or politics in general, it was absolutely a form of pre-election campaigning.  Indeed, people talked about the assistance packages as gifted by Tsogtgerel, not the Teso Corporation.  People appreciated that Tsogtgerel distributed the packages at the end of a harsh winter when herders were tired and low on cash to buy food staples.  The packages also influenced the way that people viewed Tsogtgerel’s character.  Despite his young age, the packages demonstrated that he was a “big man” (tom hun) who “does a lot of things” (ih yum hiisen).  As Liz Fox described in her recent blog post, The Road to Power, being someone who has done something, not someone who says they will do something, matters greatly to Mongolians nowadays.  People have become tired of promises and politicians talking about the future when so many expectations have failed to materialize.  Material things – gifts – demonstrate the capabilities of a person and their potential as a political candidate.

 

Competing Calendars for Competing Parties

While the western calendar gifted by Tsogtgerel decorated the walls of gers, families also kept an astrological lunar calendar underneath poles holding up the ger ceiling, allowing for easy access.  These small calendars are ubiquitous in the countryside and are used daily to aid decision-making about things like when to move to new pastures, make important purchases, or get a haircut.

During an afternoon lull in a family’s ger in Bokhmoron, we idly flipped through an astrological calendar, not expecting to find anything related to our research.  Yet, interspersing pages about earth elements, animal days, and moon phases were political comics and commentary lambasting the last four years under the DP’s leadership.  The calendar was published by a an incumbent member of Parliament belonging to the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), Chimediin Hurelbaatar.

One of the comics depicts Hurelbaatar standing in front of seated leaders of the DP, holding a pointer to a graph and lecturing.  The graph shows a sharply falling line meant to represent the downward trend of Mongolia’s economy.  Hurelbaatar is shown as an MPP master teaching DP pupils that, “Without fixing policy mistakes we will not come out of the economic crisis”.  The comic is also meant to recall lessons from Mongolia’s previous debt history.  Hurelbaatar was one of the architects of Mongolia’s resettlement of its socialist-era Great Debt (Ikh Ör) with Russia, an event lauded as the MPP’s historic merit to the Mongolian economy. [2]  Hurelbaatar’s depictions of a collapsing economy resonated with pre-election discourses about an economic crisis and rising sovereign debt burdens.  He presents himself in the astrological calendar as an economic pedagogue backed by experience to address Mongolia’s major issues.

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An image in the astrological calendar of Chimediin Hurelbaatar schooling the DP leaders about the economic crisis.  Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

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Back page of the astrological calendar distributed by Hurelbaatar for the New Lunar Year of the Fire Monkey.  Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

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Astrological calendar detailing animal days and earth elements, as well as commentary about national external debt.  Photo by Lauren Bonilla.

 

Like Tsogtgerel, Hurelbaatar distributed the astrological calendar as a gift to families after the Lunar New Year holiday in February.  Both calendars served the same function to make the potential candidate’s name and face visible to people.  However, Hurelbaatar’s astrological calendar appealed to more traditional sentiments and a past when the economy was stronger under MPP leadership.  It also had direct political messaging, without specific mention of Hurelbaatar’s aspirations for another run in parliament.[3]  In contrast, Tsogtgerel’s western calendar demonstrated a young, savvy, and entrepreneuring capitalist with connections in domestic and international business spheres.  Ultimately on Election Day the citizens of Uvs, like the rest of Mongolia, overwhelmingly elected MPP over DP candidates.[4]

 

Rumours of Cash

During our Uvs visit we were interested in material things that candidates distributed to people, but we also wanted to investigate rumours of cash handouts.  Most of the times when we asked about cash handouts, our interlocutors showed reserve and alarm because such activities are considered illegal by the electoral law.[5]  Although responses were vague about receiving cash, people had strong convictions about cash gifts.  Based on experiences during the 2012 parliamentary elections, we were told that candidates usually distribute cash in the last days of campaigning within the legally allotted 18 days.  One young man admitted that he received cash and did not feel ashamed about it.  He believed he was entitled to the money: “If it is offered, one should take it” (Ogoh l heregtei, ogch baigaa bol avah heregtei shu dee).

Whereas things like calendars and processed noodles were subsumed into the daily activities of people and appeared to symbolize patronage by powerful and wealthy elites, campaign cash handouts appeared to be something to be claimed, not just passively received.  Moreover, the illicit discourse on cash handouts had a moral implication in a time of crisis and national debt – a topic that we will examine in a forthcoming journal article and project workshop at the National University of Mongolia on November 15th, 2016.

 

Gaining Visibility

When we asked people what party they planned to support in the June election, we heard nearly the same thing over and over in rural areas: “I’m voting for the person, not the party” (Nam geheesee iluu huniig ni songovol uul ni).  While the unprecedented number of independent and third-party candidates may have contributed to this attitude, the highly individualistic campaign strategies of candidates certainly nurtured a politics of persona.

Gifting before the election reinforces qualities associated with a respectable leader, particularly one “who does things” (see Liz Fox’s concept of the inverted logic of the vote-return exchange).  Gifts also serve the interests of the candidate by giving them visibility within the intimate sphere of households.  Candidates become known to people and their names gain power.  As a local official in Tariat soum in Uvs said to us, “You have to be a ‘known person’ (tanil hun), not an educated person, to get elected.”

Our research in Uvs suggests that gifts also serve citizens, and this is why they are readily accepted.  Beyond the usefulness of things like calendars and noodles, the receipt of gifts during the pre-election period is a means for Mongolians to gain visibility as citizens.  In contrast, after the elections everyone expects that politicians will lose interest in them and do only what matters for themselves, their businesses, and their factions.

 

 

[1] The political parties publicly nominated candidates for jurisdictions on May 28, 2016.

[2] Их Өр Үүссэн, Дууссан Түүх,  Б.Пүрэвсүрэн, 2008, Улаанбаатар хот.

[3] Hurelbaatar was re-elected into Parliament.  An earlier version of this blog, posted on August 31st, mistakenly wrote that Hurelbaatar did not receive his party’s nomination.

[4] Uvs is a longtime MPP stronghold in Mongolia.

[5] Article 35.15.1 of the Law on Election revised by parliament in 2011 states that it is forbidden to, “Distribute cash or free goods for voters, sell them at lower rates, provide services free of charge or at lower rates, and organize a chargeable puzzle, betting, or gambling.”