One Party Now Dominates Mongolia But Democracy’s Not Doomed

Could one of the most surprising success stories of post-Cold War democracy be headed down the path toward authoritarianism?

That’s the fear of many Mongolians, after a presidential election Wednesday that appears to have cemented the control of the party that governed the country for seven decades under communism.

Khurelsukh Ukhnaa declared victory overnight with a haul of more than two-thirds of the early vote count. He had capitalized on the country’s success in suppressing Covid-19 to lead the Mongolian People’s Party or MPP to a landslide parliamentary election victory as prime minister last year. The Democratic Party of incumbent president Battulga Khaltmaa, having duked it out with the MPP to dominate politics since the mid-1990s, had less than one-tenth of the vote — barely ahead of the tally of blank ballots.

One Party Now Dominates Mongolia But Democracy’s Not Doomed

Such resounding electoral majorities give the MPP a powerful mandate to reshape the political landscape. That’s potentially worrying. The country of 3.2 million sandwiched between Russia and China had blossomed into a beacon of democracy in recent decades, in contrast to the central Asian republics that slipped back into the hands of various presidents-for-life after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index classes Mongolia alongside European Union members Croatia and Romania as a “flawed democracy.” In terms of press freedoms, Reporters Without Borders puts it on about the level of Poland and Japan, and well ahead of the likes of Mexico, Brazil and India.

The recent record of post-communist countries that drift under the power of dominant political factions, though, isn’t good. In Hungary and Poland, populist center-right parties have used their control of parliament to undermine other institutions, including the judiciary, independent media and non-governmental organizations. Mongolia has been in constitutional turmoil for years thanks to the simmering rivalries between the MPP and Democratic Party. If the MPP seizes this moment to consolidate its power, the light of Mongolian democracy risks being snuffed out.

One Party Now Dominates Mongolia But Democracy’s Not Doomed

The prize for such a strategy would be substantial. Mongolia has one of the world’s richest endowments of minerals, particularly coal, gold and the copper mined at the Rio Tinto Group-operated Oyu Tolgoi mine. Only three countries receive larger rents from their mineral resources relative to gross domestic product. Higher commodity prices are causing governments worldwide to push for a larger share of the spoils.

Amid surging demand from China, the economy roughly doubled in size during the 2000s, before doubling again over the past decade, growing sharply more unequal in the process. Mongolia has so far avoided the fate of some countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where political power has become almost synonymous with resource wealth and influence. Still, there’s no guarantee that a more entrenched political dynasty wouldn’t change that. Corruption is one area where Mongolia notably fails to outperform other emerging economies.

For all that, it’s too soon to count out the prospects of democracy. Unlike Hungary, which under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has worked hard to cultivate warmer ties with governments in Moscow and Beijing, Mongolia remains deeply wary of dominance by its authoritarian neighbors.

“Politicians try to maintain a working relationship with China, but public opinion is very much afraid,” said Li Narangoa, a professor of Mongolian history at Australian National University in Canberra. Both the MPP and Democratic Party are united in a policy of cultivating ties with democracies in Europe and the Anglosphere as a counterbalance, she said. “That’s the one thing they can agree on.”

One Party Now Dominates Mongolia But Democracy’s Not Doomed

Outside of politics, the institutions of democracy have also shown some strength. The media, while politically aligned, isn’t dominated by either faction. Civil society remains remarkably robust, with nearly 18,000 separate organizations registered, according to a 2018 study by the Asian Development Bank. It surely helps that Mongolia’s population is highly politically engaged and well-educated. About two-thirds of people enroll in tertiary education, a higher share than in Israel, Switzerland or the U.K.

Moreover, it’s not so long ago that one of the biggest concerns around Mongolian democracy was the prospect that the presidency could develop into a more dominant institution, turning outgoing President Battulga into a strongman in the mold of Orban or Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez. That seems a more remote prospect after the constitutional turmoil of recent years, which has seen the MPP-dominated parliament curtail the powers of the president and limit them to a single term in office. Wednesday’s election result can be seen as much as a rejection of Battulga’s authoritarian leanings as an endorsement of the MPP’s similar tendencies.

Even in the nexus of power and money in the mining industry, there have been signs of progress. Laws already on the books allow citizens to have much more insight into the activity of state mining companies. Draft legislation announced last year would also force them to disclose their beneficial owners. That would sharply reduce the scope for corruption. The experience of Tavan Tolgoi — a vast coal deposit that’s now likely to have missed the world’s last fossil fuel boom after the government dithered for a decade about how to open it up to private investment — may have shown the risks of getting the state too involved in mineral extraction.

The path taken in recent years by Hungary and Poland, where political dominance has engendered a deepening cycle of illiberalism, isn’t the only fate for democracies under strain. In the U.S., the institutions of civil society were if anything invigorated by the challenge of the Trump presidency — although it’s probably too soon to say that danger has passed. From Ghana, to Chile, to South Korea, there are plenty of examples of nations where democracy has over time seemed to grow more, not less, secure. That prospect is still open to Mongolia. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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