Mongolia edges towards autocracy

The consolidation of power in the hands of the MPP is pushing the country towards a hybrid single-party regime.

Ukhnaa Khürelsükh, presidential candidate of the Mongolian People's Party, attends a campaign rally ahead of the presidential election, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on June 5, 2021 [File: Reuters/B Rentsendorj]

On the surface, the Mongolian elections which took place on June 9 may have looked free and fair. Former Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khürelsükh of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) won with 68 percent of the vote, competing against Sodnomzundui Erdene of the Democratic Party (DP) and Dangaasuren Enkhbat of the National Labour Party.

In reality, candidates who could have posed a real challenge to Khürelsükh were sidelined. The two contenders who were allowed to run had no chance of winning; they only legitimised the election by providing a performative veneer of a competitive electoral race.

On June 25, Khürelsükh took the presidential oath of office, thus bringing all branches of government under the control of the MPP. This victory was very much the result of a ploy by the MPP and the country’s elite, which prefers to get rich on the back of commodity exports to China instead of working towards full democracy.

Thus, Mongolia’s democratic development has been gravely undermined, as a single-party rentier-state emerges under MPP’s rule.

A well-engineered ploy

In 1990, a peaceful democratic revolution brought about the resignation of the country’s communist leadership and the first multi-party elections were held. During the following two years a bicameral legislature, still dominated by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), drafted and enacted a new democratic constitution, introducing a semi-presidential system.

Unlike many Eastern European countries, Mongolia did not dissolve or ban its communist-era party. With the exception of 1996 and 2012 parliamentary elections, MPRP (which in 2010 restored its pre-1925 name, MPP) has dominated Mongolia’s unicameral legislature but has lost every presidential election since 2005. In the 2017 presidential elections, Khürelsükh, then a prominent MPP leader, worked with Khaltmaagiin Battulga, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Party, to defeat the MPP candidate and take control of the party and the premiership.

In 2020, MPP won the parliamentary elections, securing a supermajority with 62 of the 76 seats. The main opposition formation, the Democratic Party, scored poorly, winning just 11 seats. Nevertheless, it was expected that Khürelsükh would continue his informal tandem with Battulga, with MPP fielding a weak candidate to run against the incumbent in the 2021 presidential election.

However, in January, following a protest against the government’s handling of the pandemic response, Prime Minister Khürelsükh suddenly resigned, surprising everyone but himself. Though he justified the move with the need to bear responsibility, to Mongolians it was clear that he was trying to rid himself of the political alliance with Battulga, to protect himself from the effect of the pandemic and to secure the presidency for himself.

In April, the Constitutional Court made a ruling with a questionable due process barring Battulga from re-running. In May, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), which split from MPP back in 2010, signed a merger agreement with the ruling party to back Khürelsükh’s candidacy. Thus, MPRP member Ganbaatar Sainkhüügiin, arguably one of the most popular politicians in the country and a candidate in the 2017 presidential elections, was also deprived of the opportunity to run.

Subsequently, Battulga made an attempt to close down the ruling party through a decree but was simply ignored by the courts and the parliament. The DP then failed to unite its splintered factions, and its former head and an ardent Battulga critic, Erdene Sodnomzundui, was registered as the official DP candidate by Mongolia’s Election Commission. When the campaign officially kicked off, Khürelsükh and Sodnomzundui were joined by Dangaasuren Enkhbat, a tech-entrepreneur, from the National Labour Party.

It was clear from the beginning that neither Sodnomzundui nor Enkhbat had enough popularity to compete against the vast resources and access to state institutions that Khürelsükh had at his disposal for his election campaign.

The former prime minister also clearly had the backing of Mongolia’s economic and political elite, getting extensive campaign coverage on private channels and enjoying a smooth ride with the General Election Commission, which in the past had often been at odds with candidates. Even Battulga in the end gave up resistance and hinted during a TV interview that he was seeking reconciliation with Khürelsükh.

The ruling party handed out cash to its members for its 100th anniversary in early March, timed World Bank subsidies for herders to be given closer to the elections, and flooded public media with promotional content.

Given these election campaign conditions, the results were not surprising. Khürelsükh won 68 percent of the vote, Enkhbat got 20 percent, mostly from Ulaanbaatar’s economically better-off districts, and Erdene got a mere 6 percent, on par with the number of protest ballots cast.

In its post-election statement, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that a highly prescriptive campaign framework, apparent inequality of resources, excessive limitations on candidacy, overly restrictive media regulations, lack of independent information on candidates and the absence of debate had affected voters’ ability to make an informed choice.

Joining the ‘community of common destiny’

This consolidation of power by the MPP is coming against the backdrop of a major economic crisis. Mongolia, where nearly half of the 3.3 million population is either poor or at risk of poverty, gets an unhealthy majority of its foreign exchange through commodity exports to China. When the commodity supercycle, a period of sustained high prices for raw materials, stopped in 2014 due to China’s decelerating growth, the economy, which was only a few years earlier the fastest growing in the world, tanked. This necessitated an IMF bailout worth $5.5bn in 2017.

Following the crash, a debate emerged within the Mongolian elite about how much the fast turnover of governments contributed to the crisis. The idea was that if Mongolia had had a more stable government, it could have avoided the economic collapse by more effectively managing windfall revenues, attracting foreign direct investment and moving forward with large infrastructure projects, such as railways, pipelines, mines, power plants, airports, etc.

MPP took this a step further and insisted that the country cannot afford to lose the upcoming commodity supercycle – which is expected to start with economic recovery following the end of the pandemic – to domestic infighting and a concentration of political power would be conducive to the country’s development.

While counting on the China-driven commodity supercycle to pull the Mongolian economy out of the crisis, the MPP also appears to be embracing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “community of common destiny” narrative, which insists that a country does not have to be democratic in order to develop.

Since 2016, the MPP leadership have been a frequent visitor of “CCP in Dialogue with World Political Parties” conferences, through which CCP aims to win international support among foreign political parties and promote this narrative.

In May 2021, US Senators Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy highlighted this MPP-CCP relationship in a joint letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, specifically pointing a finger at MPP’s Secretary-General Dashzeveg Amarbayasgalan. As if to confirm this synergy, when the Constitutional Court was deciding the fate of Battulga, who is a well-known Russophile and Sinophobe, both Russian and Chinese vaccine deliveries to Mongolia mysteriously stopped.

When the parliament accepted the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Sinopharm vaccine shipments resumed. One million doses of Sputnik V bought by Mongolia never arrived.

By following the CCP’s narrative about undemocratic prosperity, the MPP seems to be taking Mongolia on a path towards authoritarianism. If the current trend continues, the government will transform into a textbook case of an electorally autocratic hybrid regime that suppresses dissent, supports a loyal elite through natural resource rents and “pacifies” the populace with entertainment and pro-government propaganda.

Such a regime is also unlikely to try to diminish Mongolia’s overdependence on China, which currently receives 90 percent of Mongolian exports. This would only make the country even more vulnerable to Beijing’s coercive tactics.

Thus, under the leadership of the MPP and with the full approval of the economic and political elite, Mongolian democracy is dying a slow death.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.