Election Watch: Mongolia

July 16, 2013, 1:53 p.m.

Originally posted on IRI.org on July 11th, 2013.

On June 26, 2013, Mongolians went to the polls and voted to re-elect President Tsakhia Elbegdorj to a second term, with 50.2 percent of the popular vote – narrowly avoiding the need for a run-off election.  As head of state, the president represents Mongolia internationally and is charged with national security matters and has the authority to nominate a prime minister, propose legislation, declare a state of emergency and grant pardons.  The president also possesses veto power but this can be overturned by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The campaign for Mongolia’s sixth presidential election since its democratic transition in 1990 officially began on May 22, 2013.  Three candidates competed in the election: the incumbent Tsakhia Elbegdorj of the Democratic Party (DP), Member of Parliament Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and Mongolia’s first female presidential candidate, Health Minister Natsag Udval of imprisoned former president Nambar Enkhbayar’s Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP).  The election marked an important moment for Mongolia as the country deals with its meteoric rate of economic growth and rapid social change fueled largely by massive foreign direct investment in Mongolia’s mining sector which has further exposed the once-closed-off nation to international markets and a growing influx of visitors. More than 400 foreign election observers, including 300 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) affiliated Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) traveled to Mongolia to assess the election.  On June 27, 2013, Ambassador Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE/ODIHR observation mission held a press conference in Ulaanbaatar, where she announced, “On Election Day, voters were able to cast their votes freely, and voting was assessed positively in 99 percent of cases observed.” However, the ambassador further elucidated additional details from OSCE/ODIHR’s preliminary findings, which criticized the General Election Commission of Mongolia (GEC) for displaying an overall lack of transparency in its decision-making, as well as a general absence of a clear hierarchical structure and procedural guidelines needed to efficiently and transparently challenge campaign or election rulings. Political Environment The presidential campaign and election was marked by an atmosphere of relative calm.  Few political analysts in Mongolia thought incumbent candidate Elbegdorj would lose, but with the complete absence of publically released nationwide polls, uncertainty remained.  Moreover, many analysts had expressed concern that the 50 percent voter-turnout, needed for the election to be valid, might not be reached.  Others had thought that the campaign might also be affected by the strict media controls set in place to ensure a fair campaign environment.  Although such stringent limits on campaign advertisement and candidate air-time were intended to provide a more level playing field for all three candidates, in the end, such limits appeared to have inadvertently left a significant portion of the voting public under-informed about the issues and unengaged with the campaigns. Although the campaigns appeared tempered compared to previous Mongolian presidential elections, clear campaign messages and candidate platforms emerged.  The campaign platforms of all three presidential candidates focused to varying degrees on strengthening democracy, fighting corruption, eliminating poverty and unemployment, protecting the environment, improving people’s livelihoods and balancing the interests of Mongolians and foreign investors in the mining sector. MPP challenger Bat-Erdene campaigned for strong environmental protections and a renegotiation of the Oyu-Tolgoi foreign investment agreement signed between the Mongolian government and Anglo-Australian mining firm Rio-Tinto in 2009.  According to Bat-Erdene, the agreement was an ill-conceived deal and had failed to benefit Mongolia as much as it did the foreign investors.  Bat-Erdene also called on Mongolians to balance the political power in the government by electing the MPP candidate to the presidency. Meanwhile, Udval, a staunch supporter of former president Nambar Enkhbayar ran on a similar platform as Bat-Erdene, one that reaffirmed openness to foreign direct investment in the mining sector, but with a fairer and more environmentally-friendly approach.  She also emphasized the gender factor stating that she will treat all Mongolians equally as a mother treats all her children.  She also campaigned for the need to reform the current government system that lacks openness and transparency.  Udval also called for reinforcing justice in the Mongolian judicial sector.  As MPRP’s candidate, Udval reiterated that she was not running for president with an objective of pardoning the imprisoned MPRP Chairman N. Enkhbayar. In contrast, the DP candidate, Elbegdorj, asked the voters to give him more time to continue the work he had begun in 2009.  Elbegdorj had cited a number of programs focused on promoting principles of direct democracy, fighting corruption, reforming the judicial sector, developing national production, supporting foreign investments and increasing Mongolia’s profile internationally.  Throughout the campaign, Elbegdorj pledged to continue the rapid development and growth that Mongolia had experienced since he became president in 2009.  In general, the platforms of Bat-Erdene from MPP and Udval from MPRP outlined problems facing the Mongolian people, but lacked well-defined and well-based solutions for these identified problems.  In comparison, Elbegdorj’s platform and campaign focused more on the work already underway to address such problems facing Mongolian society, and went further to offer new and attractive ideas to solve these issues. Election Results On the morning of June 27, the GEC released the preliminary results of the election, revealing that Elbegdorj had won with 50.23 percent of the vote – a margin of victory of around 20,000 votes.  Bat-Erdene took 41.97 percent, while Udval received 6.5 percent of the total vote.  Out of 1,223,737 total votes, Elbegdorj received 622,794 votes, while Bat-Erdene and Udval garnered 520,380 and 80,563 votes respectively. Once the preliminary results were broken down by aimag and district, the contrast between urban voters and rural voters became evident.  Voters in the urban centers of Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan and Orkhon overwhelmingly came out to support incumbent President Elbegdorj, while support from rural voters tended to split their votes more competitively between President Elbegdorj and Bat-Erdene.  The map below shows Elbegdorj’s share of the vote broken out by aimag.   Voter turnout in this election was around 65 percent, similar to the previous parliamentary elections in June 2012, but down from the 2009 presidential election.  This continues a trend of decreasing voter turnout since Mongolia’s first presidential election in 1993, which received almost 93 percent voter-turnout. This election marked only the third time that Mongolians casted their ballots via electronic voting machines.  The electronic voting system not only allowed for results to be tabulated quicker, but the system appears to have the support of many Mongolians, who believe that the electronic voting machines are more accurate and thus contribute to the credibility of election results.  According to the GEC, there were no major charges or reports of electoral discrepancies on the Election Day, and aside from minor isolated incidences, thus far, there does not appear to be any indications of systematic voting fraud.  Moreover, although the OSCE observation mission’s preliminary findings and conclusions report included general criticisms regarding the GEC’s lack of transparency in its decision making and unclear hierarchy for electoral disputes, voting was assessed positively in 99 percent of cases observed. Election Impact Elbegdorj’s victory demonstrated general approval of the president’s performance thus far, as well as continued support for the DP’s policies and their drive for reforms.  Elbegdorj campaigned on a promise to continue to fight corruption.  One of the signature new policies of the parliament that the president has supported is the start of Soum Development Funds (SDF), a county-level administrative unit.  These funds promise to devolve certain areas of fiscal authority to district-level areas, known as soums.  The president has been a proponent of the SDFs because these funds may reduce corruption by empowering local communities in deciding how to spend public funds.  According to Mongolia’s New Budget Law of 2011, which stipulates the SDF provision, local governments will receive 270 billion tugrik (around $185 million) annually, distributed between the soums, which soum governors will have the discretion to spend. Foreign investors with a stake in the Mongolian economy and many from Mongolia’s business community, generally appear optimistic about Elbegdorj’s victory, as the results provide a renewed sense of stability to what was up until recently an unpredictable investment atmosphere.  Throughout the campaign, Elbegdorj ran on a business friendly platform and one that promised to be more amenable to foreign investment than the other two candidates.  Both of Elbegdorj’s challengers called for the amendment of the Oyu Tolgoi contract, amid environmental concerns and charges of social inequality that have resulted from Mongolia’s rapid mining development. The Anglo-Australian mining firm Rio Tinto and Canada’s Turquoise Hill Resources have invested $6.2 billion into the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine, which is expected to produce 450,000 tons of copper concentrate annually and generate up to one-third of government revenue by 2019.  Leading up to Election Day, the first shipments of copper from the Oyu Tolgoi mine that were set for export to China were suddenly halted by the government, adding to an air of uncertainty around Mongolia’s investment climate.  However, although some business analysts remain cautious about Mongolia’s future business environment, Elbegdorj’s re-election will likely continue pro-business policies. It is worth noting however that with President Elbegdorj barely securing an absolute majority, the close results will likely be humbling for the re-elected president and his supporters.  Due to the complete absence of publically available nationwide polling data providing coverage and insight into the 2013 presidential election, it was easy for voters to miscalculate electoral expectations.  Many of Elbegdorj supporters believed that their candidate was going to win by a larger margin, when in reality as the election results showed the results were much closer. Future Challenges As Mongolia’s democracy continues to develop, and democratic institutions such as the GEC continue to reform and refine their roles and procedures, Mongolia will have to find ways to keep its people engaged in politics.  This recent election marked the lowest voter-turnout for a presidential election in Mongolia’s democratic history at just 65 percent.  This is in stark contrast to Mongolia’s first presidential election nearly two decades ago, which garnered almost 93 percent voter-turnout rate.  Decreasing voter turnout and a politically unengaged youth demographic, who often express a lack of utility and benefit in being politically informed and active, represent to two key challenges to the Mongolian polity and political parties in particular who will likely play a key role in reaching out to and engaging younger voters. The influx of mining revenues will also call for the increased need for citizens’ oversight on the planning and spending of budget resources.  Although President Elbegdorj views the devolution of fiscal authority as one promising measure to counteract corruption, and such moves have respectively proven popular in Mongolia; this innovative approach has experienced problems upon implementation.  For example, although the New Budget Law of 2011 has clear provisions dictating that local (bagh) government officials solicit constituent input regarding funding priorities for SDF-supported projects and services, in practice, district level (soum) government officials often do not incorporate these local-level citizen inputs.  Improving the quality and level of constituent relations at the district and local levels of government will be a continuing challenge to the successful implementation of decentralization. IRI in Mongolia The International Republican Institute (IRI) has supported the development of democratic practices and democratic governance in Mongolia since 1992.  Over the past two decades, IRI has supported workshops for political parties and civil society organization, has worked with members of parliament and their staff to strengthen legislative procedures and has conducted public opinion polling and analysis throughout the country.  IRI’s long-standing presence in Mongolia has enabled the Institute to establish a reputation as an expert organization willing to work with all political parties and civil society organizations, both in Ulaanbaatar and at the grassroots level in provinces across Mongolia.

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