With its multi-party political system and lively level of public debate, Mongolia stands out as a democratic success story in a region not noted for its pluralism. Indeed, the individualism that is so much a characteristic of Mongolian society now underpins a political life that can seem quite at odds with those of its neighbours, both near and far.

TRANSPARENCY & STABILITY: This political openness has also been tied to an increasing openness to global markets and the wider world. A broad consensus currently exists between the major political parties that suggests there is long-term stability in terms of policy towards investors.

The country is also rapidly playing catch up with the legislative frameworks necessary to cement its pro-free-market agenda, while engaging in a challenging yet unavoidable balancing act between the interests of its giant, and competing, neighbours: Russia and China. All this is being done too by a country that is very proud – and knowledgeable – about its past. The wellspring of mighty empires, its armies were once known and feared from the Pacific coast to the Mediterranean, while in past epochs, Mongolia also successfully established itself as a major centre of religion, culture and the arts.

GOLDEN HORDE, GOLDEN CHANCE: While there is evidence of human habitation stretching back some 800,000 years in the territories that now make up Mongolia, the recorded history of this land begins much later, mainly with early Chinese records.

The first powerful state of nomadic people to emerge in these northern lands thus recorded were the Hunnu, who ruled north of the Great Wall from around 200 BC to 200 AD. The history of the tribes then followed a pattern of uniting and dividing, with the Hunnu being succeeded by the Xianby, who were in turn succeeded by the Toba Wei empire, then the Turkic and Uyghur empires, the former eventually splitting into east and west, with the Eastern Turks living in what is now Mongolia.

By the eve of the 13th century, nearly a dozen fiercely independent tribes inhabited these lands, with the Hamag Mongol Khanate emerging as the most powerful, under the leadership of Temujin – later and more widely known as Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. Under Chinggis, and a succession of subsequent khans, a Mongolian empire was created that stretched from Korea to Egypt, reaching its peak under Kublai Khan, who was also able to declare himself emperor of China and found the Yuan dynasty in 1271. Centuries of conflict, expansion and contraction followed, with the Mongolians eventually tying their fortunes to the Chinese Manchus, founders of the Qing dynasty in 1644. This dynasty continued until 1911, by which time Mongolia had been largely reduced in political and economic status to an undeveloped northern territory of China.

INDEPENDENCE: In the chaos that marked the collapse of the Qing dynasty, however, Mongolia was able to grasp its independence in 1911, under the Holy King (Bogd Khan) Jebtzun Damba, who was both the highest spiritual and secular authority in the land. However, the new Republic of China refused to recognise Mongolian independence. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the collapse of the Russian empire to the north, then gave China an opportunity in 1919 to invade, only to be evicted by the retreating White Russian army. These were in turn ejected by an alliance of the Russian Red Army, Mongolian socialists and Mongolian nationalists.

Thus, in 1921, Mongolia became the second country in the world to declare itself a socialist people’s republic. A strong tie to Russia (then the Soviet Union) began to develop, with a single-party state, led by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), set up to govern the country.

This helped secure Mongolian independence from China, which also made the country into something of a Soviet satellite. Major purges were carried out in the 1930s, following the orders of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, with the year 1937 seeing some 27,000 people executed or “disappeared”. Many of these were Buddhist monks. One other high-profile casualty of the purges was Peljidiin Genden, the Mongolian prime minister (PM) at the time, who had argued with Stalin, protesting against the killings. Anandyn Amar, Genden’s successor as PM, was also executed during the purges.

Mongolian and Soviet troops later fought together though, in 1939, at Khalkhyn Gol to defeat the Japanese, then occupiers of neighbouring Manchuria and testing their northern frontiers. Mongolia and Russia also fought side by side in World War II to defend the Soviet Union against Nazi invasion. This shared history therefore established strong interconnections between the two nations, ties which still have an influence today.

Indeed, Mongolia remained so influenced by the Soviet Union that this extended even to the manner in which communist rule eventually collapsed, with MPRP cadres and other Soviet-trained intellectuals following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s calls for perestroika and glasnost.

By 1989, this led to open calls for an end to the MPRP’s dictatorial rule, and the creation that year of a democracy movement, the Mongolian Democratic Union (MDU). In March 1990, the MPRP resigned from office and permitted the creation of other parties, and the country’s first democratic election followed, held in June 1990.

Overall, Mongolia’s transition from Soviet to democratic politics was largely peaceful. This is an aspect which continues to characterise the country’s political culture to the present day.

CONSTITUTIONAL POWERS: In 1992, following victory in 1990 for the MPRP against a much-divided opposition in the country’s first general elections, a new constitution was drawn up. This replaced the old Soviet system with a single chamber parliament of 76 seats, known as the State Great Khural (SGKh) – khural meaning “assembly” or “meeting”.

Prior to the 1996 elections, an amendment to the new constitution was also passed, making each of the 76 seats elected from a single constituency, with a first-past-the-post method employed. Elections in 2000 and 2004 were also held on this basis, although another amendment prior to the 2008 ballot established 26 electoral districts with multiple seats, instead of 76 single-member constituencies. All members of the SGKh are elected now for four-year terms, with the voting age set at 18, and 25 years being the age at which one can run for office.

The SGKh elects a chair, who acts as speaker as well as a member of the powerful National Security Council (NSC). The SGKh makes nominations for president, with these candidates then elected independently by national ballot. The leader of the winning party in the SGKh is then nominated to the post of PM in consultation with the president. The nomination for prime minister must then be confirmed by a vote in the SGKh. The SGKh has the normal powers of a parliamentary legislature, with legislation proposed by the government having to be passed by its members. It votes on the budget, can declare war and can override presidential vetoes, although only with a two-thirds majority. It can also vote to dissolve itself, also given a two-thirds majority, the same number of votes needed to change the constitution.

Without a second chamber or upper house, this role is in some ways taken on by the president. The holder of this office is elected for a four-year term, with a two-term limit, and is the head of state, the armed forces and the NSC. Furthermore, the president also proposes who will serve as PM and is able to initiate and veto legislation.

The PM, meanwhile, also has executive powers. While nominated by the president, the premier has to be able to secure a majority in the SGKh, which also must give its approval to his or her government. The government currently consists of a cabinet of 12 ministers, in addition to the deputy PM, first deputy PM and the PM himself.

BALANCING ACT: Thus, Mongolia has a political system that is something of a hybrid of presidential and parliamentary models. Some political analysts see this as a great strength, with the balancing act that results often praised for saving Mongolia from the drift into authoritarianism seen in many other former Soviet states in Asia.

Indeed, today, the two offices are occupied by politicians from different parties, with a PM, S. Batbold, from the MPRP (which changed its name to the Mongolian People’s Party – MPP – in 2010) and a president, Ts. Elbegdorj, from the Democratic Party (DP). This mirrors the fact that the current government is a coalition, with both MPP and DP members.

POLITICAL REFORMS: Ahead of the next general election, scheduled for June 2012, there has also been much discussion about further constitutional changes. Proposed modifications include a switch to a form a proportional representation, along with changes in the balance of rural and urban constituencies. The latter change, some people think, is necessary to reflect the major urbanisation trend that has occurred since the original constituency boundaries were drawn up, while the former seeks to address distortions in the allocation of seats compared to the number of votes cast.

Another constitutional change being proposed by some MPs regards the system of checks and balances, under which the president may issue a veto on legislation which then only requires the approval of one-third of the members of the SGKh to stand. Some also see a tightening of the remit of the NSC as important, as it has become more heavily engaged in the decision-making process than perhaps originally envisaged. Composed of the president, the PM and the chair of the SGKh, the NSC was constituted originally to make recommendations to parliament, specifically on issues of the highest national importance.

Yet with elections pressing, few in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, told OBG they were confident that any constitutional change package would be voted through before the ballot. However, there is a strong likelihood that the issues raised in the constitutional debate will continue to be hot topics in the next term of the GSKh.

JUDICIAL DUTIES: The Mongolian judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court (SC), while constitutional issues are dealt with by the Constitutional Court.

SC justices are nominated for presidential and GSKh approval by the General Council of Courts (GCC), with 12 subordinate judges and a chief judge currently serving. The SC is the final destination for all appeals from the lower courts, while it may also hear human rights cases referred to it by the prosecutor general. The lower courts consist of aimag (provincial) courts, city courts, soum (county), and inter-soum courts and district courts. The 1992 constitution also allowed for the establishment of a number of specialised courts with jurisdiction in criminal, civil and administrative matters, with these courts not under the supervision of the SC.

Regulations then passed in 2004 established a system of administrative courts, with each aimag possessing one, and with the Administrative Chamber of the SC acting as both a final court of appeal and as the intermediate court of appeal (although the same judges are not permitted to hear both appeals). In 2011, this system was amended to establish the Administrative Court of Appeals, which now sits to hear intermediate cases.

LOCAL LEVELS: With its vast terrain and challenging communications and transport networks, along with its long tradition of nomadism and culture of self-reliance, Mongolia has always been somewhat de facto decentralised. This is likely to take a more concrete form in the period ahead, too.

Decentralisation has been a major political discussion for many years, with the government looking to distribute authority and wealth more evenly around its 21 aimags and one municipality (Ulaanbaatar). Each aimag, as well as the capital, has its own elected khural, which has the political power to nominate the aimag governor to the PM, who then appoints them for a four-year period.

Each aimag is divided into a number of soum and each of these is divided into baghs. There are around 334 soums, each of which has a khural and a governor. Many soums are inhabited by herders, with a soum centre providing the few permanent buildings in the whole county. Ulaanbaatar, meanwhile, is divided into districts and then into horoos – the lowest formal administrative and territorial unit.

Since 1990, sequential government regulations have established a high degree of responsibility for service provision at the local level, yet fiscal decentralisation remains much less advanced. Governors, for example, do not have any powers when it comes to local taxation, but instead implement central government budgets and spending programmes. There is, however, continuing debate over whether to change this, and grant more fiscal powers to the lower levels of governance.

OUTLOOK: With general elections coming up in June 2012, the year ahead looks likely to be an extremely busy one for Mongolia’s politicians.

Yet whichever party wins though, the country’s democratic system will certainly prevail, with the proposed changes to the political sphere aimed at making it both more accountable and transparent. With a string of elections already under its belt since 1990, there is no doubt that Mongolia has a firmly established political culture of debate and democratic transition, something which is here to stay.

These important features lend the country a high degree of stability and flexibility. Indeed, these are two qualities that Mongolians have long used to their advantage, and which will stand them in good stead in the years ahead as endeavour to take their country back into the international limelight.