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Anti-offshore Movements as the Place of Political Mobilization and Discourse Setting

uczipm012 May 2018

 

This piece is by Sanchir Jargalsaikhan, a political scientist and activist broadly concerned with economic and political development in Mongolia and in the Global South. Sanchir was recently a visiting scholar at the Emerging Subjects Project at UCL. His main area of research focuses on problems of late and uneven development, democratization process in post-socialist countries, issues of trade, and investment, extractivism, poverty and debt in the developing world. He has an interdisciplinary research agenda that combines political theory, global political economy, and Central Asian and Russian studies. This blog post is a continuation on Sanchir’s last entry to the Emerging Subjects Blog. 

 

Our colleagues at the Mongolia Focus blog wrote couple of posts that discussed the Oyu Tolgoi mine and the current wave of corruption investigations and arrests, most recently involving former Prime Ministers Ch. Saikhanbileg and S. Bayar. Marissa Smith’s attempt to “turn the conversation to larger systematic factors” compliments this post very well. In my last entry on the Emerging Subjects blog, I elaborated on the genesis of anti-offshore movements in Mongolia. Today, I will take up a micro lens and attempt to dissect one of these movements.

The last few years in Mongolia have been characterized by growing social discontent amidst continual economic decline. Many Mongolians who are angry about present economic conditions think that they cannot find any outlet within the political system and therefore have been more and more attracted to act in an extra-systemic manner. In the absence of effective political channels and class based political parties, competent civil society organizations must exist if widespread grievances are to be voiced. However, our socialist legacy and poorly executed transition to liberal democracy has rendered our civil society incapable of effectively voicing people’s concerns. During the state socialist era, civil society wasn’t conceived as a distinct sphere detached from and in tension with the state. It was totally controlled by the state, starting from trade unions and ending with children scout programs. As was the case with almost all state-socialist countries of that time, civil society mobilization in terms of political party development and labour union strength that formed the basis of progressive populism in many mature democracies, was absent in Mongolia. However, this fundamental weakness was not properly addressed during the transition. The assumption was that weakening the state will necessarily strengthen civil society, as if it was a zero-sum game. When the government was scaled down and withdrew from its wide ranging socio-economic obligations, an enormous vacuum was created that was filled with different forms of civil society permutations spurred by Mongolia’s growing political liberalization. Besides the international donor community,there are numerous religious and philanthropic associations operating in Mongolia. These include movements related to environmentalism, feminism, alternative lifestyle, minority rights movements, LGBT activism and many other forms of ‘lifestyle politics’. This new form of political activism has been hailed as a symptom of a novel, ‘post materialist’ world (Giddens, 1994), no more occupied with questions of the distribution of wealth.

It is commonly believed that of the 44,000 registered Civil Society Organizations (CSO) in Mongolia, about 2000-4000 of them are more or less active. Yet, the availability of numerous civil society organizations often precludes policy and advocacy stratification. What happens in practice is that no single CSO is powerful or vocal enough to attract an adequate response from the general publicor the government. Ottaway’s (2000) take on CSOs describes Mongolia’s current situation better than I could. In her view “many CSOs act as trustees rather than genuine representatives of the constituencies on whosebehalf they lobby, and therefore, it is not clear that they have very strong roots in society.” The result is a weak civil society that is largely dependent on international organizations for assistance with operations and finances and/or on different vested interests. This is the structural reason for very low levels of actual political participation in Mongolia. This feature of Mongolian politics distinguishes it from many developed countries where civil society organizations, such as trade and labor unions have become mediators between political parties and working-class voters. Absence of effective mechanisms to articulate and represent people’s interests has made ordinary voters prone to populist politicians and parties. Mongolian civil society leader Undarya (2013) summarizes the state of the field perfectly:

“… at the threshold of anew decade wrought with risks as well as opportunities due to the mining boom, the field [civil society] is not adequately equipped to play the crucial role it needs to play – toempower citizens and communities to stand up against corruption and humanrights violations, to hold government and private sector accountable and chart amore equitable course of development. To play this role that only civil society canplay, consistent policy measures are needed to strengthen the field.

 

People’s Anti-Offshore Committee or Ard Tumnii Onts Zövlöl’s (ATOZ):

Figure 1: Mandate for entry.

 

From September 2017 to February 2018, I visited several meetings and forums organized by ATOZ, a large movement that advocates bringing embezzled money from offshore accounts. From the outset, I became convinced that people participating in these events are casualties of various social, political and economic processes which, over time, have been internalized and reproduced in a very defeatist form of dissent – deep anger towards elites, democracy, and anything in between. The general feeling of being left out of what “was theirs” and what “was promised” rendered these discussions very inefficient from an advocacy and political stand point.

 

Figure 2: “One of my brothers is quite active in this petty ATOZ movement. But he doesn’t know term “offshore” and instead calls it “ovt shaar.”

 

What was clear was that these movements had very little resemblance to the ones lauded or ridiculed on social media. There have been several different waves of perception concerning these types of movements. The rise of environmental NGOS’s and movements that opposed proliferation of mining activities throughout the country, was often labeled as a rise of “slackers” and “racketeers”. The famous publicist Baabar went as far as describing them as “600 шантаажчин” or “600 racketeers.”

 

Figure 3: “ATOZ is the last chance to save our people!”

 

Another trend is to describe the people engaged in these activities as types of saviors and imbue them with responsibilities far exceeding their true potential. Since political parties do not represent Mongolian citizens interests and do not  allow people a platform to air grievances, these movements give a sense of hope that non-systemic movement could garner enough support to influence decision-makers or even contest an election.

 

Figure 4: A delegate is presenting and reading a poem.

 

The second main point that I observed was the division between ATOZ members into groups according to different potential strategies. One group was quite hesitant to approach politicians and was clearly suspicious of any type of “ulstorjilt” or doing politics. This group organized its meeting in a large hall that is owned by National Labor Union. Delegates from many aimags /provinces/ districts were allowed to present at the main podium along with main speakers. In between these speeches, singers performed and pledged their support for the cause. In order to speak on the podium people wrote their names on the queue spreadsheet paper and presented in that order. The time allotted to them was on average longer than at any meeting or gathering that I have attended in recent memory. Many participants delivered energetic and fiery speeches that concerned structural problems affecting Mongolian society as opposed to concentrating on specific issues such as offshore practices.

 

Figure 5: Tax specialist from Switzerland is presenting.

 

The other group’s meeting was held two weeks later at another hall that was rented. This group was explicitly working with the current president Kh.Battulga and his administration on the issue of offshore money. At the event I attended, two tax professionals who were invited from Switzerland through President’s Secretariat gave very technical presentations. The general impression was that a set of technocratic steps could be a way to fight tax evasion through offshore schemes. The audience was allowed to ask questions only after all the presentations were done and very little time was left. One person summed up the lingering feeling that was left at the end of the meeting, this is “politics as usual, where knowledable people come in, preach something and leave without trace.”

 

Figure 6: “Lets save our state from traitors [offshore account holders] and release our people from MANAN [MANAN or cloud refers to dominant two political parties stranglehold on Mongolian politics] bondage.”

Two overarching themes dominated both of these events: skepticism about foreign/hybrid interests, which was perceived primarily as a reason for the loss of national identity and sovereignty; and skepticism about politics, elites and democracy as well as about politicians embodying these processes, who are increasingly believed to only protect their own interests. Skepticism about loss of national identity and national independence arises from two interrelated suspicions. The first suspicion concerns the suspected widespread influence of foreign interests, be they government sponsored or corporate and the hypothetical infiltration of Mongolian society and politics in particular, by hybrids. The second suspicion was underlined through very colorful comment by one of the presenters at the ATOZ meetings. According to him: the “Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the Democratic Party(DP) are both skeletons and I am proud that I denounced my membership years ago. Glue, wood and a horn make up a bow.  Thieves, bandits, and prostititues make up [modern political] parties.” These suspicions have been frequently used by different political parties at an increasing rate that consequently reinforces latently held beliefs and worries by repudiating claims of politicians in vicious negative feedback spirals. These trends found its clearest manifestation during the 2017 Presidential elections and are likely to persist in future.

 

Figure 7: Discussion during the interval.

However, a parallel theme that I was able to observe as I was participating in ATOZ meetings and demonstrations was that sense of many disengaged or disenfranchised people finding solace and community with one another. People were donating substantial amounts money [by their standards] to the cause and participating with great vigor and energy. A lady from Khovsgol province in North-Central Mongolia even volunteered to work as a secretary if ATOZ set-up an office in Ulaanbaatar. What was even more evident was people’s desire to understand and/or modify complex socio-economic terms built around a technocratic discourse. One delegate from a western province came up with an ingenious idea. According to him, “changing the term off-shore to “ovt shaar”” [cunny bastard] would “make it more relatable” since any person who owns an off-shore account is by definition a thief and bastard. Taking these different aspects of the movements into consideration begs the question – is it possible to attribute these movements and their underlying reasoning to only material or political motives? What if these movements play parallel functions and acquire their own life with a different internal logic? From this point emphasizing non-strategic aspects of protest, such as its discursive potential and subjectivities of different actors, certainly complicates the idea of rational social movements. They direct us to pay more attention to the varied aspects of the action framework of these movements.

 

References

Giddens, A. (1994). Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ottaway, M. (2000). Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

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

ucsadul29 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.

 

References

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].