Since its Democratic Revolution in 1990, Mongolia has been defined as an “oasis of democracy” among an ocean of authoritarian rule by China and Russia. This was a profound rarity in Central Asia; much of the world marveled at the seamless transition of power after pro-democracy leaders led a series of peaceful protests. The country’s commitment to democratic institutions and free elections had once provided hope for an actively communist region.
Recently, however, Mongolia has followed in the footsteps of several other nations by allowing an elected a populist leader, President Battulga, to rise into power. With the support of parliament, a proposed law by Battulga was passed last month that grants the President the authority to dismiss judges and senior members of the nation’s legal system. The legislation was enacted with the intent of removing the Supreme Court judge, the highest prosecutor, and the director of the Independent Authority Against Corruption. What concerns parliamentarians is how efficiently the proposed legislation was passed. Only 48 hours after introducing the bill, it took effect immediately. The lack of discourse in Mongolian politics worries politicians even in Battulga’s party because it leaves little room for democratic institutions to account for a diversity of opinions. According to the party’s secretary of foreign relations and cooperation, Sukhbaatar Tsedenjav, the recently passed law reflects a “loss of faith” in democracy for the Mongolian people. This belief is reflected among the people as well –– as much as 60% of voters have little to no confidence in the government, according to recent opinion polls.
So, what has hindered the full transition process towards democracy in Mongolia? Citizens seemed to have a culture of democracy in their desire for reform, but this hasn’t prevented the rise of stealth authoritarianism. Norris (2017) argues that democracy is upheld through the culture of democratic norms, and Levitsky & Ziblatt (2018) bolster this argument with their analysis of norms in maintaining democracy. After the revolution, Mongolia seemed to be was establishing its own norms; yet, the public support and institutions could not prevent the path to authoritarian rule.
Perhaps, democracies require more than established norms. For Mongolia, one of the greatest setbacks in their transition was the lack of economic growth following democracy. Lipset (1959) argues there is a strong correlation between economically developed countries and the strength of their democracies, and Mongolia’s failure to implement a substantive democracy supports this correlation. Economic failures attributed to the revolution appear to be the source of Mongolia’s path to authoritarianism.
History of Economic Development Post 1990
Although economic struggles had existed before the Democratic Revolution, opening country to Western democracy also entailed opening up economic borders. International organizations such as the IMF and World Bank entered the market and began rapid privatization reforms that did not match with the traditionally communal Mongolian culture. The country also holds one of the worlds few nomadic cultures, which posed a great challenge during this time of economic liberalization. Much of the literature we have read thus far have not considered the implications of such a seismic cultural shift. We often analyze countries with a modernized Western view of democracy, but Mongolia demonstrates that social culture can impact the sustainability of a Westernized democracy, in this case, allowing for a powerful ruler to overstep their democratic responsibilities.
Rise of Stealth Authoritarianism
The economic meltdown led to violent protests and political unrest. This opened up the potential for a populist leader to take the reigns and deploy their own agenda. As Muller (2018) writes, these leaders utilize their connection with the ‘laymen people’ in order to gather popular support. Since President Battulga’s democratic election in 2017, he has been slowly dismantling the very institutions that brought him into power due to the bipartisan support he gains in parliament and from the people. To quote a Democratic party supporter interviewed in an article for Bloomberg, Battulga is respected because “he’s one of us, one of the ordinary citizens.” His supposed macho charisma allows him to ride public anger about widespread corruption, which follows in the path of many populists leaders before him. Thus, gathering bipartisan support for his legislation that increased his authoritarian rule was not a challenge; it passed with 82% of parliament in favor.
Decline of Belief in Democratic System
Limiting the power of the courts and ensuring they agree with the President by appointing loyalists is one of the several actions a stealth authoritarian can take to extend their control, and this rise in power is unsurprising considering the economic failures from previous democratic efforts (Varol 2015). The lack of economic growth seems to be correlated with a disengaged society who grew exhausted from constant corruption scandals, and the people, once motivated for change, feel defeated with the democratic process. Citizens have even begun to wonder if an authoritarian rule would be a more viable solution, especially when the country compares itself development to their authoritarian counterparts like Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. This is a slippery slope. The worry with stealth authoritarianism is that their policies will erode at democratic institutions, but with Mongolia, if citizens are beginning to feel as though democracy is not efficient, the government has less pressure to maintain even a veneer of democracy.
This process of shifting society’s views of democracy seems to stem from their initial poor economic development, which is in alignment with Lipset’s argument that a good economy determines democratic stability. A lack thereof can impact democratic norms, despite the hope of many citizens has for reform, which demonstrates that the need for tangible improvement prevails over ideological changes.
Image Credits: Photo by Christopher Michel, taken from Flickr.com. The original source can be found here.
- Norris, P., 2017. “Is Western democracy backsliding? Diagnosing the risks.”
- Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D., 2018. How democracies die. Crown.
- Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53(1): pp. 69-105.
- Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Parts I, II and III.