The Mongolian parliament this week voted to expel House Speaker Miyegombyn Enkhbold in an unprecedented move capping a tumultuous two months in the country’s politics involving multiple corruption scandals, protests and party infighting.
At the heart of the ongoing turmoil is what has become known locally as the “SME scandal”.
Fourteen parliamentarians, two cabinet members and other high-ranking officials were accused in November of embezzling more than $1m in government funds, diverting resources intended to support small and medium enterprise (SME) development to their family and friends.
Amid an ongoing investigation by the country’s anti-corruption agency, the scandal divided the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which holds an 85 percent majority in the 76-member parliament.
Enkhbold, who was dismissed on Tuesday on the back of allegations over a separate 2016 corruption scandal, was among the MPP members who initiated a vote-of-no-confidence against their own party’s Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, demanding accountability for the SME case.
Khurelsukh narrowly survived the vote in late November, with 40 MPs backing him and 33 going against him.
During the debate in parliament, the prime minister urged those implicated in the SME scandal to return the funds and ask for the public’s forgiveness.
His pleas led to a backlash on social media, where a hashtag translating to “we will not forgive SME” started making the rounds amid long-standing public frustration in a country ranked 93rd out of 180 on Transparency International’s (TI) global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).
Luvsanvandan Bold, an MP who broke with the opposition Democratic Party (DP) in December after voting in favour of Khurelsukh, said there are about 30 funds similar to the SME one.
“A very large embezzlement network has been established to milk these funds over the last 10 years,” he told Al Jazeera, calling for “a full and comprehensive investigation” to “punish the culprits”.
On December 18, fewer than three weeks after the vote-of-no-confidence, Mongolian news agency Ikon reported that Khurelsukh’s brother had received 1.3 billion Mongolian tugriks ($520,000) from the state’s SME fund. The prime minister has denied any link to the reported case, while so far there hasn’t been any action against his brother.
Mogi Badral Bontoi, the chief executive of the Cover Mongolia newswire, told Al Jazeera that after his own near dismissal amid mounting corruption claims, Khurelsukh and his faction engaged in “sheer political mastery, cleverly turn[ing] the table around on their main political rival”.
In a public offensive, the prime minister accused Enkhbold of leading what he calls Mongolia’s “30 families”, an elite group of wealthy members of both the MPP and rival DP that he alleges is attempting to topple the government because it is interfering with their business interests.
Khurelsukh and his circle began demanding Enkhbold’s resignation, citing an unresolved scandal from Mongolia‘s 2016 parliamentary elections. Known as the “60 billion tugrik scandal”, the case refers to allegations that ahead of that vote, Enkhbold sold cabinet positions in the MPP’s future administration in exchange for campaign funds.
Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert and professor at the University of British Columbia, said the fallout from the SME scandal, coupled with widespread public anger over high-level corruption, created a long-awaited opening for Khurelsukh to push Enkhbold out.
“The allegations against former speaker Enkhbold have been mounting since the 2016 parliamentary election, so in some ways, it was the time for him to go,” Dierkes told Al Jazeera.
“He shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He never, really, denied the ’60 billion tugrik’ allegations,” added Dierkes, suggesting Enkhbold’s denials were not able to successfully refute the claims against him. “So, just on corruption grounds, it was long coming.”
In recent weeks, as Enkhbold was trying to keep the SME scandal in the public eye, Khurelsukh’s supporters organised two protests in Ulaanbaatar to back the calls for the speaker’s resignation.
Accounts over the size of the demonstrations on December 27 and January 10 in the capital’s Sukhbaatar Square became, however, a subject of controversy – international news outlets published what appeared to be inflated turnout numbers provided by the protests’ organisers, leading to criticism on social media and refutation in the Mongolian press. Aerial photography of the events and official accounts suggest that the turnout for each protest was under 5,000 people, rather than the reported 20,000 to 30,000.
Enkhbold’s dismissal came after the passing of new legislation on January 18 which requires a simple majority for MPs to remove the speaker – a post granted extensive powers by the Mongolian constitution.
While the new law might have been politically expedient, some observers have warned it sets a dangerous precedent for future parliamentary stability. Under it, “the speaker will no longer have the sole discretion of setting the legislative agenda, putting the parliamentary role of checks and balances on the executive branch in question”.
Still, the turmoil of the past two months does not necessarily indicate a crisis for Mongolia’s democracy, according to Mark Koenig, the Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia.
He said his organisation’s research shows that Mongolians are increasingly aware of large-scale corruption and its negative impacts on the country’s citizens and economy.
“The Mongolian public has increased its understanding and awareness of corruption and is showing signs of decreased tolerance,” Koenig told Al Jazeera.
In a 2017 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, 67 percent of respondents said corruption is a major problem for Mongolia, naming it as one of the top three issues facing their country, alongside unemployment and poverty. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said parliament does a bad job of combatting corruption.
“Mongolia needs to improve its fight against corruption, otherwise it will drop to an authoritarian regime,” Batbayar Orchirbat, executive director of TI’s Mongolia branch, told Al Jazeera.
“The prime minister, government, parliament members – they’re all involved in corruption cases. Instead of fighting corruption, they’re fighting Mongolia’s anti-corruption agency and Mongolia’s media and Mongolian NGOs who fight corruption.”