Competing demands: The country maintains a long-standing balancing act between its powerful neighbours

Since Mongolia emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union two decades ago, it has developed a strong commitment to democratic governance and economic liberalism, a commitment that it has demonstrated via six presidential elections and seven parliamentary ones, and its democratic institutions have rapidly matured, despite the substantial challenges faced by any transitional economy.

This transition has taken place within the constraints of some long-standing geopolitical realities, with the strategic situation of the country shaping much of its modern politics. In Mongolia policy decisions vital to foreign investors are as often shaped by fundamental concerns about powerful neighbours as they are by the contingencies of day-to-day governance.

Now though, after a year in which the Democratic Party (DP) consolidated its hold on all the main offices of the state, the expectation for many is of a new chapter in the nation’s post-Cold-War history. Indeed, this may soon see the political and legal frameworks put in place which will allow Mongolia to take the important next steps in its process of economic development.

Historical Geography

The contemporary boundaries of Mongolia were relatively recently drawn for a nation with a history stretching back thousands of years. Home of the great Mongol empires of the medieval period, today’s Mongolians have ancestors who in the 13th century roamed a realm stretching all the way from the Pacific to the River Danube.

Under Chinggis Khan, then his son Ogedei and later grandsons Guyuk and Mongke, a pax mongolica was established across a vast territory that touched the borders of Thailand, northern India and the Baltic, while Iran and Iraq were provinces. This was an unprecedented and never-repeated unification of Asia – albeit one achieved largely by conquest – that briefly opened trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, including the famous Silk Road. Under Mongke’s successor, Kublai, a Mongol dynasty called the Yuan was also established and ruled China for about a century.

Caught In The Middle

This astonishing history is still a source of great pride to Mongolians, with the khans referenced by today’s politicians and pundits as examples of the country’s enormous potential. The story of a small collection of previously warring tribes joining together under the great khans to conquer much of the known world is a powerful part of the national narrative. That is particularly so too when the nation now finds itself landlocked between a former superpower and a coming one: Russia and China.

Of these two, recent history has often given the Mongolians a more guarded approach to the latter than the former. Much of this goes back to the 18th century, when the troops of the Chinese Qing dynasty finally subjugated the Mongol Zunghar khanate and began a period of Chinese rule over the Mongol lands that lasted up until 1911. In that year, a successful uprising installed Bogd Gegeen, the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s majority Buddhist population, as Bogd Khan, ruler of Mongolia. Russia recognised the newly independent khanate, yet China did not – successfully invading in 1919.

Mongolia then became caught up in the north Asian fall-out from the Russian Revolution and Civil War, with this occurring alongside the gradual collapse of authority in China, as that country, too, staggered through rebellions and conflicts. Troops loyal to the White Russian Baron Ungern von Sternberg briefly occupied part of the country in 1920, before being ejected by Russian and Mongolian Bolshevik forces in 1921, with this army then going on to expel the remaining Chinese and establishing a new, independent state, with the Bogd Khan initially re-instated at its head.

Modern Implications

It was in this alliance with the Red Russian forces that the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) was first formed. D. Sükhbaatar quickly emerged as its most dynamic leader, and he is still an important national hero today. Yet, as the optimism of the revolution quickly turned to Stalinist terror, in 1923, Sükhbaatar killed himself, while in 1924, the Bogd Khan died under mysterious circumstances. A Soviet-style people’s republic was established that same year. A series of left and right turns then followed, in line with Stalin’s dictates from Moscow. These decisions frequently had fatal results for Mongolia’s own revolutionaries. Indeed, this culminated in the 1937 massacre of the Buddhist clergy, as a result of which the local priesthood was almost completely wiped out.

Yet Soviet Russia also protected Mongolia from any further encroachment by others, including the Japanese, whose conquest of most of Manchuria was halted at the Mongolian border in 1939, at Khalkhyn Gol, by Soviet and Mongolian troops. In 1945 that combined army also expelled Japan from Manchuria.

Late 20th Century

Into the Cold War, Mongolia remained part of the Soviet orbit. Its agricultural sector had been collectivised and, as Russia fell out with Mao Zedong’s new, communist China in the Sino-Soviet split, Mongolia’s military, communications, transport, education system and industry all became bound up ever more closely with the superpower to the north. Single party rule, too, was introduced under the renamed MPP, now known as the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP).

Thus, when the Russian superpower collapsed in 1989, Mongolia too went into crisis. Pro-democracy oppositionists formed the Mongolian Democratic Union (MDU), staging protests and hunger strikes that eventually pressured the MPRP to negotiate a transition to democracy. This bore fruit in July 1990 with the first ever multi-party elections. The MPRP won these though, demonstrating its widespread support and prestige as the party that led Mongolia to independence, as well as indicating the inexperience and lack of on-the-ground organisation in the MDU.

A new constitution became law in 1992, which established direct elections for president, as well as for the unicameral parliament, the State Great Khural (SGKh).

Elections

The first president of the new Mongolia was P. Ochirbat, initially of the MPRP, but later transferring his allegiance to the DP, which emerged as the strongest grouping from the old MDU. The DP chairman, Ts. Elbegdorj, led to victory a coalition of the DP and others in the Democratic Union Coalition in the 1996 general elections. In 1997 presidential elections gave the MPRP’s N. Bagabandi the victory, an achievement he repeated in 2001, serving as president to 2005, when the MPRP’s N. Enkhbayar was elected.

In the meantime, the parliamentary elections of 2000 had seen the MPRP return to office, with the 2004 elections leaving an even split between them and the DP/Motherland Party, resulting in the formation of a coalition government. In 2008 the MPRP re-established a majority government, although in 2009 the DP’s Elbegdorj was victorious in the presidential election.

In 2010 too, the MPRP renamed itself the MPP – a move that also triggered a split, with a faction led by Enkhbayar constituting itself under the old MPRP title. The MPP continued under S. Batbold, until 2012, when O. Enkhtuvshin took over the helm. That followed the 2012 election victory by the DP, in coalition with the Civil Will-Green Party (CW-GP), and the Justice Coalition – itself made up of the MPRP and the Mongolian National Democratic Party.

In 2013 Elbegdorj won the presidential election, defeating the MPP’s B. Bat-Erdene, a celebrated former wrestler, and the MPRP’s N. Udval, the country’s first-ever female candidate for president. Elbegdorj thus began his second term, establishing the DP in both parliament and presidency, with N. Altankhuyag serving as prime minister.

Executive Powers

As head of state, the Mongolian president has many ceremonial powers, although he or she also has several key decision-making roles. The president may veto legislation coming from the parliament, although this can be overturned by a two-thirds majority in the SGKh. In this way, the presidency often acts like a second chamber, delaying or obliging the SGKh to reconsider legislation before passing it.

The president also has many powers of appointment. These include appointing the Supreme Court’s (SC) chief judge, as well as approving appointments elsewhere in the judiciary; nominating a candidate for prime minister, with this then subject to a vote in the SGKh; and nominating the prosecutor-general. He or she also holds the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairs the National Security Council.

While the president is invariably a party member before running for election – indeed, presidential candidates can only be nominated by parties with seats in the SGKh – before taking office, he or she is obliged to renounce any party membership. Presidents are also limited to two four-year terms and can be removed from office by a two-thirds vote in the SGKh. They may also issue decrees, which come into force when countersigned by the prime minister.

Much of the main executive power resides with the prime minister. As leader of a majority in the SGKh, following four-yearly parliamentary elections, he or she appoints the Cabinet, which contains the heads of all the ministries and other key government agencies. This body can originate bills, passing them for debate in the SGKh and a vote, which, if successful, then goes for presidential approval. The prime minister also appoints the heads of the aimags, or provinces, of Mongolia, and the governor of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Legislative Powers

A no-confidence vote in the SGKh, or a lost general election, is required to unseat the prime minister and the government. The SGKh chooses the prime minister after a general election, voting on a candidate recommended by the president.

The SGKh also has the power to pass or reject legislation coming from the government, including the budget, while the speaker of the SGKh also acts as deputy president. The Khural may also change the constitution via a two-thirds majority vote.

The SGKh is thus the supreme legislative body in the land, with its 76 members chosen by universal suffrage according to a mixed-member proportional representation system. Under this, 48 deputies are elected from constituencies, while the rest are appointed by the parties from their respective lists, according to the proportion of the vote each party received.

In the 2012 elections, the DP won 35 seats and 46% of the vote; the Justice Coalition won 11 seats and 14.5% of the vote; and the CW-GP won two seats with 2.6% of the vote. The opposition MPP won 26 seats and 34.2% of the vote. Three independents were also elected, with 3.9% of the vote split among them. Notably, the DP won all but two of the 13 seats in the capital area, with the MPP stronger in Tov and Uvs, Bulgan and Govi-Altai, amongst others.

Local Government

Mongolia divides into 21 aimags, or provinces, each of which further sub-divides into soums, or districts, which themselves subdivide into bags, or subdistricts. In addition, there is one hot, or municipality, Ulaanbaatar, which subdivides into duureg. Each aimag is headed by a governor, appointed by the prime minister, with legislative power held by the unicameral aimag khural, or provincial parliament, which is elected every four years. The capital has its own governor, who is also the mayor, and its own khural.

Mongolia is a much more decentralised country than some of its neighbours, both politically and economically. Indeed, the post-Soviet era saw the break up of many centralised structures in the aimags, including the collective farms. Privatisation of these led to some atomisation of rural communities though, with recent reforms now aimed at trying to bring many farmers and herders back into larger units.

Aimags have thus gained in importance in recent times, with their own budgets and powers, as the government also tries to expand the country’s transportation and communications networks across this large and at times inhospitable territory.

Justice System

Mongolia’s legal system is derived from the Romano-Germanic tradition, with a division between civil and public law. The highest judicial body is the SC, which acts as the court of last resort, can make judgements in human rights issues and other cases arising from the Constitutional Court (CC), and provides official interpretations of Mongolian law – except in matters relating to the constitution. The CC itself makes those judgements amongst its nine members, who sit for a term of six years. The SC is headed by the chief justice, who is appointed by the president and who sits at the head of 12 subordinate justices.

Beneath the SC are the chambers for criminal cases, administrative cases and civil cases, with appellate courts descending through the administrative system, to the aimag and then the local level, or in case of Ulaanbaatar, to the duureg level.

Outlook

With a string of successful elections now under its belt, Mongolia’s democracy is more than two decades old. Debate can still be sharp though, with issues such as the distribution of natural resources – particularly regarding the country’s vast wealth of mineral resources – still in progress.

Mongolians are also used to facing some difficult geopolitical realities. They are a country of just 2.9m people, next door to one with around 1.35bn – nearly 500 times as many people. To the north, too, lies Russia, another international power, even if its Pacific region is sparsely populated.

The debate over whether to ship minerals via Russia or China, for example, is thus also about keeping Mongolia’s identity and independence, as well as about profit margins – as is the debate over the “third country”, a traditional policy of trying to balance Russia and China with another force, at one time Japan, now the Japanese, Koreans and the West. This geostrategic thinking, combined with a keen sense of national pride, in keeping with a long and distinguished history, often characterises Mongolian politics.

In the year ahead, a more unified presidency and parliament may thus strike some hard bargains as they try to use the country’s immense mineral resources to leverage the foreign investment levels necessary for a long-awaited economic take-off. At the same time though, they will likely also try to ensure continued control over those same resources for the generations of Mongolians to come, aiming to strike a satisfactory balance between frequently competing demands.

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