Mongolian text message referendum flops

By bne IntelliNews February 5, 2015

Terrence Edwards in Ulaanbaatar -


Simon Cowell and Mongolia both cheered when a deal was made last year to bring the Got Talent TV show to the formerly remote Soviet satellite. 

But Mongolian voters were less than enthused when Mongolia's new prime minister, Chimed Saikhanbileg, took a page from Cowell's book by asking citizens to take to their phones to vote how they think he should run the country.

Only 10.3% of the 3.3 million mobile phone subscribers bothered to respond. The poor turnout may be a sign of cynicism among voters who have turned out in high numbers for official elections – even though those figures too are steadily declining. Some 74% of voters went to the polls for the 2008 parliamentary elections and 65% in 2012, compared with 98% for the first election in 1990. []

In the vote, Monglolians chose the less painful option of reinvigorating the mining sector vs more budget cuts. Mongolia is attempting to recover from an 85% collapse in foreign investment between 2013 and 2014, according to Independent Mongolian Metals & Mining Research. The vote gives Saikhanbileg guidance on how his government should act to survive what looks to be another difficult year for foreign investment and economic growth.

Referendum participants who responded by texting “1”, voted for government to work with private partners to get the country's largest mining projects growing again. That includes launching work on a $5.4bn expansion project for the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine. The second option rejected that path, instead calling for budget cuts and savings.

The low turnout, however, made the vote virtually irrelevant. 

“It's a text message. It's so unworthy of this,” said Zoldelger Khulan, a 23-year-old who works in marketing. “I'm not relying on it, that's why I didn't vote.”

The vote also favoured people wealthy enough to own multiple mobiles, who are also more likely to vote in favor of building the mining sector back up.

“I don't think he actually conducted this survey to really get public opinion,” said Gan-Erdene Tsendmaa, a 26-year-old office manager, about Saikhanbileg's plan. “He just needed support for doing something confidently, but lots of people are really sceptical about what he's doing and how he'll improve the economy.”

The economic downturn that prompted the referendum is largely an effect of troubles in the mining sector, which drove 17.5% economic growth in 2011 compared with an expectations for around 7% this year (the Mongolian government has not yet released the necessary data for a concrete statistic). Although Mongolia has repealed laws that deterred investing, a dispute with diversified miner Rio Tinto over the Oyu Tolgoi mine lingers on and has put a drag on investment. Oyu Tolgoi is one of the biggest mines for copper in the world and the country's largest mine outright.

Rio Tinto owns 66 percent of Oyu Tolgoi through its majority owned subsidiary Turquoise Hill Resources, while the government owns the remaining 34%.

Oyu Tolgoi missed a fourth deadline in two years on December 31 for a $4bn project financing package to fund construction of a underground mining network that is needed to extract most of the resources there. The project financing is considered one of the largest in the world and is paid for by institutions such as the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The lenders need to see some resolution to the dispute with the government before they can lend, however.

Erdene Lkhagva, one of the producers that is bringing Got Talent to the Mongol TV network, said they were still trying to figure out how they will implement their own voting system and prevent tampering. He, too, wondered about the veracity of the government poll.

“We haven't figured it out yet on Got Talent, but I am very skeptical on the SMS poll,” he said. “These kind of impromptu involuntary poll sampling will only get the responses from the crazies and most radical.”

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