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The Black Box of Presidential Politics

ucsadul17 June 2017

This blog was co-authored by Bumochir Dulam and Rebecca Empson.

 

As Mongolians are getting closer to vote for their new President, campaigning among the three candidates, M. Enkhbold from the Peoples Party, Kh. Battulga from the Democratic Party, and S. Ganbaatar from the Revolutionary Party, is in full swing.

Like last year’s parliamentary elections, rumours circulate as to the motivations, characters, and aims of the three candidates, and speculations abound about whom is ‘behind’ (or supporting) whom (see our blog post). ‘People [are] constantly searching for meaning – connections and explanations – in actions they [find] difficult to read and understand. In fact this searching for meaning and speculation is [very much] what politics is in Mongolia. It is the speculation of connections and motivations beyond the visible and tangible. To understand politics – or to think politics – is to understand the underside of things, beyond the way things appear to the ordinary eye, to uncover the workings of a kind of magic or religion.’ (Rebecca Empson, 2016).

In this post we discuss rumours circulating around the use of Electronic Voting Machines (Mng. Songuuliin Khar Mashin, coll. Khar Khairtsag, ‘Black Box’) in Mongolian elections, and the President’s involvement in securing his successor. In doing so we extend the use of the phrase ‘Black Box’ to explore aspects of Mongolian politics that are unclear or opaque to the general public.[1]

***

Against the background of the 2008 July riots, which were sparked by allegations of fraud surrounding the legislative election and which lead to a state of emergency which lasted for four days and included five civilian deaths (cf. Kaplonski, Delaplace, and Sneath 2008), and in order to go some way in countering speculations of tampering with votes, in June 2012 Electronic Voting Machines were introduced to count votes in the parliamentary elections.

The infamous ‘black boxes’ (Mng. Khar Khairtsag) (called ‘New Image Cast’) were brought from America, from a company called ‘Dominion Voting’, by a Mongolian company called Interactive.

Black Box

Over 2,500 ‘black boxes’ were used throughout the country in the 2012 Parliamentary elections.  Source: www.baatar.mn

 

While some doubted their impartiality, many were impressed and relieved at their implementation, believing that the black boxes were secure and would eliminate human error and bias in counting votes. Results, it was reported, would be sent immediately to the General Election Committee, avoiding manual tabulation by local election officials.

However, on June 30th, 2012, the Mongolian People’s Party and 8 smaller parties questioned the use of the machines and called for a recount of the votes by hand. In contrast, the Democratic Party, headed by Ts. Elbegdorj, backed the automated system and became the majority in the new coalition government.

Despite their alleged ‘impartiality’, speculation has continued to circulate about the possibility that the khar mashin’s are rigged or can be ‘hacked’ (songoliin haker) (cf. Oldoh 2017). The General Election Committee (Songuuliin yeronhii horoo) maintains and runs the black boxes and its IT officers are in charge of installing and updating programs on the machines (Bat-Ireedui 2015). According to some, this means that powerful politicians could very well influence and manipulate the General Election Committee, making sure the machines were used for their own means.

On the 10th December 2015 a protest was arranged in Mongolia against the use of electronic voting machines in elections. On the same day, Delkhiin Mongolchuud Radio posted a Mongolian dubbed version of the American film ‘Hacking Democracy’, directed by Simon Ardzzone. This film showed how elections could be tampered with using various kinds of technology, including the Electronic Voting Machines, and emphasised how they could ‘steal’ (luivar) votes. On the same day as the film circulated a protest was arrangedfor a fair election without the use of the corrupt black machine’ and an effigy of the ‘khar mashin’ was burnt in Ulaanbaatar.

Burning of a Black Box Effigy. Text on box reads: ‘Black machine for vote counting’ . Source: UBS.MN

Burning of a Black Box Effigy. Text on box reads: ‘Black machine for vote counting’. Source: UBS.MN

 

In 2017, further protests were arranged by the ‘Free Association of Elders’ (Ahmadyn choloot holboo) (Olziibayar 2017), ‘United Association of non-party citizens’ (Nam bus irgediin negdsen holboo) (Urantsetseg 2017), and the ‘Fair centre’ for the protection of victims’ rights and interests (Hohirogchidyn erh ashgiig hamgaalah ‘shudraga tov’) (Uchral 2017) calling for an end of the use of Electronic Voting Machines to count election votes.

Regardless of such protests, the electronic voting boxes will be used in 50 % of votes in the up-coming presidential election, despite rumours circulating that Ts. Elbegdorj controls the very black boxes that he used to bring himself and his own party into power. Indeed, people speculate that he can determine their outcome.

This idea is so prevalent that Kh. Battulga, the candidate of the Democratic Party, is now suspected to be involved in an attempt to buy the very same machines from America for use in the up-coming elections to count his own votes. M. Udaanjargal, his Political Advisor (zovloh), is now under police investigation for attempting to purchase the boxes from the American company ‘Dominion Voting Systems’ (Od 2017). If this rumour is correct, then it is held by many to confirm speculation that the electronic voting boxes can be used to hack votes.

***

Rumours over Elbegdorj’s ‘ownership’ and control over the black boxes extend to speculation about his control over the whole elections. The black boxes and uncertainty over the ‘true’ power behind them becomes a metaphor for the different candidates and questions over who actually ‘controls’ them. In this murky world of political wrangling people speculate that Elbegdorj is in fact behind the appointment of all three candidates, having deliberately supported them at various times, and put them in place to rig the election in order to determine his own succession.

A major reason for this, it is speculated, is to secure himself against future corruption charges (particularly the Erdenet 49% share, etc) once he has seeded his position. Attempting to align himself with all three candidates, he hopes to avoid any opposition that will come to question his reign as President.

Such speculation circulates along the following lines: once a major donor and founding supporter of HUN Nam (Hodolmoriin Undesnii Nam – the National Labour Party), he is behind the appointment of the candidate S. Ganbaatar. He is also a supporter Kh. Battulga, who supported Elbegdorj’s presidential campaign eight years ago, and who at this election seems to be garnering the most public support. However, these two might be considered mere puppets for his steadfast support of M. Enkhbold for President, whom many in fact consider to be the only ‘real’ political candidate.

Despite his political credentials, many worry that M. Enkhbold’s appointment could provoke riots among the public who largely support Kh. Battulga (as shown by the wide range of people who supported him when his offices were raided last year), and at worst burn down the People’s Party building, as in the 2008 riots.

Rumours also circulate that Elbegdorj is protecting himself against future corruption charges by confirming his connections within the MANAN group or faction (frakts). MANAN is a term derived from two acronyms: ‘MAN’, the acronym for the Mongolian People’s Party, Mongol Ardyn Nam, and ‘AN’, the acronym for the Democratic Party, Ardchilsan Nam. Pairing ‘MAN’ with ‘AN’ makes the Mongolian term for ‘fog’ (Manan), hinting at the blurred and opaque character of Mongolian political alliances and factions.

It is speculated that the key people heading the MANAN faction is M. Enkhbold, chair of the People’s Party, current speaker and presidential candidate, and Ts. Elbegdorj, the current President of Mongolia. These high-ranking politicians within MANAN are seen as the most powerful politicians in the country, wielding the most power. Elbegdorj’s close association with MANAN, his control over the black boxes, over the supreme court, over the constitution, over the media, and, indeed, over the outcome of the current election leads some to refer to him as the ‘Khaan of Mongolia’.

Ts. Elbegdorj honouring the Black State Standards at Burkhan Khaldun. Source: http://old.eagle.mn/content/read/32090.html

Ts. Elbegdorj honouring the Black State Standards at Burkhan Khaldun. Source: http://old.eagle.mn/content/read/32090.html

 

No wonder, then, that the appointment of some candidates over others, and the control of certain voting systems is thought to be highly divisive.

Attending to the circulation of such speculation and rumour in this blog piece is not meant to ‘expose’ some sacred truth behind the current ‘fog’ of democracy. Rather it alerts us to the form that politics is currently taking in Mongolia. Through this we see that trying to uncover motivations and speculating about new ones is a major feature of political conversations among the general public. Once this fog has cleared, it is hoped by many that the ‘true’ nature of what politics should be about will be allowed to flourish. Perhaps then the black boxes will come to symbolise something entirely different.

 

References:

http://politik.mn/post/3796

http://www.bataar.mn/10040364

https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mongolian-economy/2016/08/17/political-atmospheres-in-the-lead-up-to-the-parliamentary-elections-2016/

2008 ‘The end of post-socialism? An account of the 1st of July riots in Ulaanbaatar,  Mongolia,’ Kaplonski, Chris,  Gregory Delaplace and David Sneath; Inner Asia 10(2): 353-365.

Bat-Ireedui, J. 2015. Who and how maintains the black machines. MGLRADIO102.1.  http://mglradio.com/home/?mid=fastnews&page=8&document_srl=21737

Od, E. 2017. “Jenko” songuuliin “har mashin” hudaldan avchee (“Jenko” bought election “black machines” ). http://www.shuurhai.mn/?p=150846

Oldoh, Ch. 2017. A. Erdenebayar: Manaid ashiglaj baigaa snala tooloh mashiny zoriulalt n oor (A. Erdenebayar: Vote counting machines we use in Mongolia is designed for different purpose). http://sonin.mn/news/politics-economy/79123

Olziibayar, T. 2017. G. Baasan: Yeronhiilogchiin songuuliin dung garaar toolohyg shaardaj baina (G. Baasan: Demanding to count presidential election votes by hand). http://www.ikon.mn/n/10wt

Urantsetseg, U. 2017. Iregdiin sanalyg garaar toolohyg urialj medegdel hiiv (Made a statement appealing to count peoples’ votes by hand). http://medee.mn/mobile.php?eid=93422

Uchral, B. 2017. Bid garaar toolj nudeer harj yeronhiilogchoo songomoor baina (We want to elect our presdeint by looking with our eyes and counting with our hands). http://www.ikon.mn/n/10yt

 

[1] In English and Mongolian the term ‘black box’ or ‘khar khairtsag’ is a metaphor for a system where you can see what is entering and exiting but you do not know what is going on inside the system.

 

How Gifts Grant Candidates Power

Lauren Bonilla31 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.”