Fifteen years after the collapse of communism in Mongolia, a vibrant, feisty democracy has taken root in this remote land, driven by the energy of a young generation fiercely determined to forge an independent identity for their homeland.
Four candidates are campaigning in the country’s third regular presidential election, scheduled for May 22, and are supported or criticized by dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations, at least five private television stations and state-run national television. None of the candidates is more than 50 years old.
There are approximately 1.5 million registered voters in this country of 2.5 million people. Everyone over 18 is eligible, and more than 80 percent are expected to turn out for the election, including nomadic herders who inhabit the remote parts of the country. Mobile polling stations will be transported to those with no easy access to fixed voting booths.
The two top contenders are Nambaryn Enkhbayer, 47, chairman of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and current speaker of Parliament, and Mendsaikhan Enkhsaikhan, 50, chairman of the Democratic Party and a former prime minister. Whoever is elected president will serve as head of state and chief of the armed forces. Policy decisions are made by the 76-member parliament, headed by the prime minister.
Since winning an equal number of seats in parliamentary elections last year, the MPRP and an alliance of democratic parties have shared power in an uneasy coalition that splintered earlier this year when a minority of democrats quit and formed an opposition bloc with several independent members. This placed the democrats in the awkward position of being split between the ruling party and the opposition, but enabled the coalition to hold.
If he wins, Enkhsaikhan, as leader of the democratic alliance, may be able to strengthen its commitment to the coalition. His vision for the country is an economy based on private ownership, and a healthy and clean society in which the Mongolian people are united.
“Distributing the wealth equally I think is the biggest problem,” Enkhsaikhan told United Press International. “The key thing is for us to create conditions in which people cannot stand corruption and bribery.”
After years of slow growth, Mongolia’s economy grew by 10.6 percent last year, with the private sector contributing some 80 percent of gross domestic product. The gap between rich and poor has widened, however, with one-third of the people still living below the poverty line, while corruption is endemic at various levels of government.
Despite their early appeal as a liberalizing force in a society wary of socialist controls, the Democrats lost considerable credibility after winning the 1996 election. At the time, they named four prime ministers in four years and as a result they lost their majority in the 2000 parliamentary election.
The MPRP was the ruling party during the Soviet era. It is now reformed and repackaged as a moderate social democratic party, positioned “left center” and “for a market economy with social care,” according to Y. Otgonbayar, a member of the party secretariat and adviser to Enkhbayer. The party is a member of the Socialist International, which is holding a regional conference in Ulaanbaatar this weekend.
Both Enkhbayer and Otgonbayar deny the party is clinging to its communist mindset, however, noting the country’s democratic constitution and reforms were conceived and adopted in the early 1990s, while the party was still in power.
“Mongolia is a democratic country in northeast Asia,” Enkhbayer told UPI. “We can be studied as a model for other countries. We are trying to advise the Socialist International here so other parties can see that nothing bad will happen when they change.”
Enkhbayer believes his party can provide the stability the country needs to pursue economic and social development.
“The other parties are collapsing, which makes the political situation unstable,” he said. “We need to develop because our neighbors are developing so quickly.”
Sandwiched between China and Russia, and dominated by first one then the other over the past 350 years, Mongolia is acutely aware of the need to fortify its fragile independence by strengthening its economy, its political institutions and its participation in international forums.
The platforms of the two parties are not as far apart as their names and histories imply. Both support a market economy, and both see fighting poverty, unemployment and corruption as their major challenges.
“It’s very difficult to say who is more progressive,” Sanjaasurengin Oyun, a member of Parliament and founder of the Citizens Will — Republican Party, told UPI. “In general the Democrats are more liberal. The MPRP is slightly obsolete; they still have some of the old mentality. But when it comes to discipline and hard work, the MPRP is much better.”
Also in the race are two wealthy businessmen, Bazarsad Jargalsaikhan, 46, of the Republican Party and Badarch Erdenebat, 46, of the Motherland Party. Both have spent small fortunes campaigning in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the countryside, though the likelihood of either one winning is remote. While the two major candidates have taken commercial flights in their cross-country forays, Jargalsaikhan and Erdenebat have rented helicopters at $1,200 per hour, according to Oyun. Her own party decided not to field a candidate because of the high expense of electioneering.
Charges of unfair practices have been levied against the General Election Commission, with representatives of the three other parties accusing the commission of bias toward the MPRP. At a news conference Thursday, the three called for the resignation of the commission’s chairman for issuing multiple election ID cards and registration numbers to voters in the countryside. They claim that 80,000 “extra” voter registration cards have been issued. Most district officials with responsibility for registering voters, as well as monitoring polling stations on election day, are MPRP members.
“It takes time and energy to respond to their charges,” said J. Yadamsuren, the commission chairman. “I think it’s normal for such things to crop up in a democracy. We are doing our best to ensure that everyone votes in this election.”
Whoever wins the presidential race, many observers hope the current coalition government will remain in place long enough to implement reforms that have been under discussion over the past year in areas including administrative divisions, whether or not to encourage settlement of the nomadic population, election and tax reforms and anti-corruption legislation.
Public pressure is rising, especially for anti-corruption laws, says Oyun.
“Out of shame the Parliament will probably approve these measures,” she predicts. Despite such realities, she is one of many young leaders who remain optimistic about their country’s future.
“They may hate each other, but the advantage of the coalition is that the two sides are actually sitting down to discuss what is good for the country,” she says. “Despite all kinds of problems, people are still trying very hard.” United Press International