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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.”

Tsagaan Sar Gift Index — 2016

RebeccaEmpson8 March 2016

Members of the Emerging Subjects project at UCL and the National University of Mongolia contributed to this post.

 

What does focusing on gifts given and received during Tsagaan Sar tell us about the general economy? Last year we posted our first Tsagaan Sar Gift Index (TSGI) and found that the slowing economy shaped how people celebrated the holiday, with people confining the celebrations to fewer days and opting for more useful gifts (like socks) that support Mongolian businesses.

This year, the economy has been shaken further with pressures of increasing public and private debt and the slowdown of commodity prices globally. We found that people bought less over-all in preparation for Tsagaan Sar. While prices have decreased (especially the price of meat), the cost of this year’s celebration was very straining.  This was especially true for those without a regular income, or dependent on the sale of meat for money.  The cost of preparing and sourcing goods was compounded by an already difficult time economically, and many pensioners used their pensions to take out loans, or purchased items through credit to fund the celebration.[1]

Based on comparison of our different cases, it seems typical for a lower-income household to spend less than 600,000 tögrög; a middle-income household to spend between 600,000-800,000 tögrög; and high-income over one million tögrög. If a household has elders or highly-respected individuals, such as a doctor or singer, they often have to spend well over one million to accommodate the large number of guests. Though households might receive a good amount of money in the form of cash gifts given by guests (around 100,000-400,000), this does not seem likely to off-set the cost of items like vodka, prime cuts of sheep meat, gifts for guests, and holiday outfits that are purchased in advance of the holiday.

Average Tsagaan Sar expenditures based on age group. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

 

Alongside our reflections we have interspersed the text with statistics from the Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group’s survey on people’s attitudes toward Tsagaan Sar (with kind permission from Bumerdene Dulam). Although these are based on very general reflections, they complement the individual experiences we recount.  They also reveal rising public interest in the high cost of the holiday.

Preparations

Based on her ongoing work with traders at Narantuul market, Hedwig noted that the market was, as usual, packed in the lead-up to the National holiday, and especially so in the last three days of the previous lunar year. The sellers were happy to be busy, but many remarked that over-all spending was much less than usual, and was characterized by ‘scattered’ and ‘irregular’ purchases (таaруу). In fact, the average trader made 30% less than last year selling goods for the national holiday

Those who sold household goods (ariun tsevriin hereglel) encountered a decrease in comparison to last year in spending of around 10 %, as people bought gifts like shampoo and soap from their shops, as well as products to clean their homes before the celebration started. Clothing shop traders (i.e. non ‘necessary’ goods) reported a loss in profits of between 30-50 % compared to previous years. Instead of purchasing new clothes, many reported using old material to make their New Year outfits, or simply reusing what they had. Others reported re-gifting items they had received, while also being strategic about whom they visited.

One of Rebekah’s friends stressed that:

‘Like all Mongolian holidays, Tsagaan Sar will not be skipped or overlooked. People are spending as much as they can to have a decent Lunar New Year. This year is the year of the Monkey, a year that bears the title of the “mischievous faced-one”. A mid-ranking family can expect to spend from 500,000 – 1,500,000 MNT, with food, drinks, gifts and cash tokens all included.’

According to him, the prices of things were not that high, compared to last year. Instead, he explained:

‘The value of the tögrög dropped to a level where prices do seem high and people’s wallets are thinner this year. One US dollar now is trading at 2005-2010 tögrög in the commercial banks. Experts warn that it could reach 2200 if proper measurements are not taken.’

Many spoke of giving smaller gifts, such as phone credits, 500-1000 tögrög in cash, or small sweets and treats for younger people. Another of Rebekah’s friends reported a disconnect between the generations as to how best to celebrate the occasion, with one person commenting:

‘I see young people wanting to celebrate in a simpler way with less gifts and less extra expenditures; however, elders wish to celebrate it as they used to, so many are in trouble [financially]. 70% of all retired elders are in debt by taking out their monthly pensions in advance.’

Another person described how one of her relative’s took out her monthly pension allowance in advance with her husband. ‘They took out all their monthly pensions until February 2017, and [they] still don’t have enough money to celebrate Tsagaan Sar,’ causing them to ask their family for more money. It is clear that while many are already in debt, they allowed themselves to get further into debt in order to celebrate the occasion in a way they had been used to before.

Loan for TS, 45% of total families take loans

45% of people take out loans for Tsagaan Sar. 73% obtain a loan from the bank, and 24% obtain a loan from individuals. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

 

One member of our research group was in charge of arranging Tsagaan Sar for her elderly grandmother, given that her mother and other older relatives were abroad during the holiday.  She was given a budget of 1 million tögrög ($490) to procure necessary food items and 100,000 tögrög ($49) broken into crisp, new 5,000 tögrög bills to give upon guests’ departure.

She was able to spend just under 1 million tögrög to purchase foodstuffs like meat, vegetables, pickles, eggs, mayonnaise, traditional dairy products, fruits, candies, ul boov (large foot-shaped cookies for an offering plate), wine, vodka, and juices.  She was able to save some money because she was directed to only serve ‘dal durvun undur’ – the long four ribs of sheep – on the table, instead of purchasing the expensive sheep back and fatty tail.  Many other people we talked with also remarked that they excluded this cut of the sheep, due to its expense.

Types of meat offering

Different types of meat offerings purchased for the holiday. 50% of households interviewed serve the fatty tail of the sheep, the most expensive cut.

 

Gift-giving

In terms of gifts, the researcher in charge of arranging her grandmother’s Tsagaan Sar prepared boxes of Merci-brand chocolates as well as candies, cough drops, and travel-sized lotions that her mother shipped to Mongolia from the United States.  For special guests, like the doctor treating her grandmother, she gave a bottle of high-end Mongolian vodka (Soyombo brand) and large boxed Merci chocolates.  Guests greeted her grandmother with brand new currency notes in the largest denominations.  In total, she received 150,000 tögrög ($73).

Another family associated with our research group, based in the countryside, roughly budgeted the amount of money they anticipated spending on gifts and food in preparation for Tsagaan Sar:

family budget

Anticipated Tsagaan Sar expenses for a household in rural Mongolia. Gifts make up a large part of the budget. Courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

 

A friend of Lauren’s, who participated in last year’s TSGI, shared that he is still most appreciative of the Mongolian-made gifts that he received.  In particular, he really liked receiving a shirt made by the Mongolian company, Oulen (see image below).  He was not particularly pleased, however, about receiving Russian-made gifts. One of the more interesting gifts that he received was a set of bowls made by the Russian-Mongolian ‘Ulaanbaatar Railway’ painted with socialist-era themed images.  He explained that the bowls used to be in many homes in Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s, thus they have a nostalgic appeal.

Like others we have spoken to, this man chose to visit fewer families than in past years, and also chose to only greet elderly people with money gifts.  According to his observations, other people appeared to be doing the same.

 

Gifts

Gifts received by a young man in Ulaanbaatar.  Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

Gifts

Made in Mongolia shirt gift. Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

Gifts

Soviet-themed bowls. Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

 

Hedwig encountered further forms of strategizing to avoid paying for lavish gifts. For example, many younger people avoided visiting extended elder relatives in order to avoid having to give money. And while some found the cost of giving gifts straining, forms of conspicuous consumption were also prevalent. For example, while many said that they prefered gifts made-in-Mongolia, gifts from other countries were given as a form of status. One household that Hedwig visited, for instance, gave honey and tupperware and facemasks from South Korea, and another gifted British-made shampoo and shower gel. While made-in-Mongolia socks were prevalent gifts, many people commented that the gifts should be ‘useful’ (kheregtseetei / tokhiromjtoi), including objects like cup sets and gloves.

One research team member was surprised when she visited a well-to-do household serving non-traditional food offerings, such as egg-fried rice, fried mushrooms, and glass noodles with vegetables.  She found it to be a nice break from the traditional offering of Russian potato salad and dumplings.  When she left that household, she was given a gift bag of French-brand cosmetics, a luxurious gift that she heard other people received from wealthy families (other gifts of this nature include cashmere clothes and bed linens).

Most challenging tasks of TS

Most challenging expenses for Tsagaan Sar.  54% report gifts for guests, followed by the fatty tail of the sheep.  Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

Average cost of Tsagaan Sar preparations

Average cost of Tsagaan Sar expenditures. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

Another of Lauren’s friends, a man 34 years of age in Ulaanbaatar who has a low salary in state-run office, multiple-side businesses, and a high mortgage that he can barely pay, reflected that he could not afford to visit many families this year and that many people are trying to take out bank loans to finance the situation. More ‘traditional’ forms of celebrating have been promoted, resulting in more conservative festivities, as a direct reflection of the economic downturn.

Indeed, the economic strain of this year’s celebration even prompted one man in Dalanzadgad, Omnogobi to write on their facebook profile: ‘Because of the financial crisis this year, [we will] make mantuun buuz for Tsagaan Sar.’  Unlike regular Tsagaan Sar dumplings, mantuun buuz are made with yeasted dough and usually contain less meat filling, thereby providing a less expensive way to fill-up the stomachs of guests.  While his comment was made in jest as a form of social critique, it suggests public concern about the affordability of the holiday in the current economic climate.

Mantuun buuz

‘Because of the financial crisis this year, [we will] make mantuun buuz for Tsagaan Sar.’

 

Comparisons to Past Years

One member of our research group heard from friends and family that this year’s Tsagaan Sar was particularly tiring for people, not just because of the economic situation. This year Tsagaan Sar fell on a Tuesday, meaning that people ended up taking almost the entire week off from work.  This meant that Tsagaan Sar lasted not just three days, as typical, but six days (Tuesday-Sunday).  For the first time, some families ‘ran out of buuz’ because they had so many visitors, and had to make trips to the shops to restock food items to offer guests, like juice and soda.

Many spoke of the great financial burden of the holiday this year with one friend from Hovd exclaiming, just after Tsagaan Sar:

‘We celebrated the Lunar New Year and worshipped well. No one had adequate cash to buy the things that were needed, so we got items through a bank loan, and through credit from stores.’

Tsagaan Sar seems to be a big financial burden for the elderly. The older you get the more people you receive to your home. The more prestige you are granted, the more of a financial burden you have to shoulder.

The kinds of gifts a family gives are also indicative of its economic standing and networks, and the kinds of gifts you are given indicate your closeness or distance to a particular family member.

The fact that some families can afford to engage in these displays of wealth while others cannot is well-recognized and perhaps epitomized in the phrase: ‘if you are rich in something, offer it to others’ (yougaar bayan tüügeeree dail).  Perhaps this holiday was as much about displaying wealth as it was about distributing wealth and sharing resources across generations and groups of friends.

 

 

[1] For other statistics and excellent diagrams, see the Mongolian Marketing & Consulting group and their facebook site.