Mongolia held its 8th regular parliamentary election on June 24, 2020. The country sits in an authoritarian neighborhood and is the second country to hold parliamentary elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The election resulted in the oldest political party, the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), winning the supermajority with 62 out of 76 seats. The main opposition, the Mongolian Democratic Party (DP), won 11 seats. The three remaining seats were divided between the former Prime Minister N. Altankhuyag (as an independent candidate), the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and the newest political party, the National Labour Party. The voter turnout reached 73.64 percent nationwide, a slight increase from the previous parliamentary election held in 2016.
The Unsurprising Win of the Ruling Party
The MPP got re-elected as a supermajority. The party held 65 seats in the previous parliament (2016 – 2020). MPP’s leader Prime Minister U. Khurelsukh succeeded in consolidating power during the last parliament, successfully passing a constitutional amendment, effectively containing the COVID-19 pandemic, and reducing capital city’s air pollution. In contrast, the main opposition, DP, had been suffering from factional disputes, which led to a split in the party’s support base for this election.
Another factor, the majoritarian election system, contributed favorably to the MPP’s gaining 82 percent of parliament seats with 44.9 percent of the total vote. The majoritarian electoral system was less favorable for smaller parties and electoral lists. The three seats that belonged to the two other parties and the independent candidate represented 30.6 percent of the total vote, in comparison to 24.5 percent representing the DP’s 11 seats.
Although the election result was uncontested, five candidates—all prominent politicians—were arrested during the election campaign and later sentenced for misuse of power concerning the country’s big mining projects. These charges flagged a severe concern, as it violated a clause under Mongolia’s Law on Elections that granted candidates immunity from prosecution. Also, these charges were seen as politically motivated, for these politicians had been in conflict with either the Prime Minister of Mongolia or the President of Mongolia. The arrest of political figures is not rare—the volume of these charges ominous threat to the 30 years of democracy-building.
The constitutional amendment passed in 2019 gave more power to the Prime Minister, granted him with rights to appoint and change his cabinet (previously, this needed the approval of parliament and a consultation with the President), and established a higher threshold for the vote of no confidence in parliament. Since the constitutional amendment came into effect, the Prime Minister U. Khurelsukh formed his cabinet with 14 ministries and 16 ministers without prior consultation with the President Kh. Battulga before introducing them to parliament.
Mongolian Economy Takes a Dive as COVID-19 Hits
Although the effective containment of the COVID-19 pandemic increased public confidence in Prime Minister U. Khurelsukh, the national and global pandemic situation is posing further challenges. One of these challenges is the Mongolian nationals who have been stranded abroad since the border lockdown began in March. Due to the limited capacity to isolate and treat people testing positive to the virus, the government’s repatriation effort has not been sufficient. Although the country reported bringing in over 13 thousand citizens, there are over 10 thousand citizens who submitted their request to be repatriated.
The pandemic also poses economic challenges. The GDP growth is projected to decline from +5.1 % in 2019 to +2.1% in 2020. The economy is heavily reliant on the mining industry. As of 2019, the industry took up the share of 21% of the GDP, 70% of Foreign Direct Investment, and 85% of export earnings. Although mining plays a crucial role in Mongolia, the political and social controversies are perpetual.
In July 2020, a few officials, including two former Prime Ministers and a former minister of finance, were sentenced for abusing power for their own gain during negotiations for the Oyu Tolgoi investment agreement. Oyu Tolgoi is a world-renowned mining project jointly owned by the Government of Mongolia and Rio Tinto. The mine is expected to contribute to 30% of the GDP by 2027. Despite this, the mining industry remains highly controversial and is often associated with corruption.
Mongolia’s Trajectory: Is There a Future for Democracy?
Mongolia follows the semi-presidential system, one where the executive head of state is elected by the public. The President is the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and has powers to appoint the chief judge of the Supreme Court as well as veto the parliament’s legislation. The President Kh. Battulga had submitted his draft of the constitutional amendments to parliament, pushing for President-centered governance and for the removal of proposed amendments that would limit his power in the judiciary. He had gained the power to dismiss the judges, the Prosecutor General, and the head of the anti-corruption agency before their term end dates through amendments to sets of legislation back in March 2019. The severe concern raised by this change was that the President himself was under investigation for corruption and embezzlement prior to winning the presidential election in 2017. Although the newly passed amendment was intended to annul the President’s new powers and protect the judiciary from that political influence, the recent charges against prominent political figures suggest otherwise.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia will host its 9th Presidential election next year in 2021. According to the constitutional amendment, the President will serve only one six-year term. The resilience of democracy will once again be put to the test.