In 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry regaled Mongolia as an “oasis of democracy” in contrast to its neighbors such as China and Russia. Following its Democratic Revolution of 1990, Mongolia has functioned as a semi-presidential unicameral representative Democracy. The people directly elect the president, and the prime minister—the most power executive actor—is nominated by the party with the most seats in the parliament, and must be approved by the president. Mongolian elections are multiparty, but the 2016 elections brought about shift to a two-party system.
Despite this major shift towards democratic institutions, and even receiving a Freedom House rating of “free,”[i] Mongolia has been experiencing major issues with corruption since the 1990’s. A huge portion of the country’s wealth and power is accumulated in what is estimated to be only 30 families, while 30% of the population continues to live below the poverty line.[ii] While elections may be multiparty, recent exposés indicate that individuals in both of the two dominant parties have colluded to distribute the country’s wealth amongst themselves. Public outrage and protest in response to the fear of corruption, have become very common amongst the Mongolian people.
In response to public dissatisfaction and outrage, the act of portraying oneself as anti-corruption and anti-establishment has become a guiding principle for Mongolian politicians. The current president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, gained success in the 2017 elections running on a platform of anti-corruption and being a political “outsider.” Some have likened Battulga, a former martial arts champion, to Putin in his image as a strong-man leader, with claims of challenging the political elite.[iii]
Battulga is harnessing the power of anti-corruption public sentiment to aggrandize himself and expand once minimal presidential power. While the prime minister used to be the most powerful executive, Battulga has been undertaking political action to weaken the other branches of the government under the guise of combatting corruption within them. In one of the most threatening instances, Battulga ousted Enkhbold Miyegombo. The former speaker of the Parliament, and Battulga’s main political rival, lost to Battulga in the 2017 presidential election. In December of 2018, Enkhbold was accused of selling government positions for money resulting in massive public backlash. Riding on public protests and rallies against Enkhbold, Battulga proposed a bill which would allow the speaker to be removed by a simple majority of parliament. The bill passed and Enkhbold was removed.[iv] This allows the president, with only a simple majority, a huge amount of influence over the legislative branch. Battulga has dismissed several other officials, including members of the judiciary. Battulga has mobilized public sentiments against corruption and distrust of the current political order to centralize executive power. His actions pose a great threat to the checks and balances which maintain the Democratic integrity of the Mongolian political system. The judiciary is subject to presidential manipulation and the legislature is being subjugated to presidential power.
Despite Battulga’s widespread popularity, many people, both Mongolians and foreign, are acutely aware of the danger of Battulga’s self-aggrandizing actions. The ultimate question facing Mongolians is: is jeopardizing Democracy a reasonable price to pay to break the country out of a cycle of corruption and gridlock?
Photo: “Vladimir Putin and Khaltmaagiin Battulga,” provided by kremlin.ru