CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: The new khan of Mongolia

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: The new khan of Mongolia
Khurelsukh Ukhnaa at his swearing in as Mongolia's new president.
By Anand Tumurtogoo in Ulaanbaatar June 30, 2021

With the inauguration of Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, Mongolia has its sixth president in the country's three-decade-old democratic history. Under the amended Constitution, he will be the first president to serve a single term of six years. And there are hopes that, compared to his predecessors, Khurelsukh will become the modern-day nation's most influential president yet, one who might change the course of Mongolia’s early 21st century history. 

A little history was in fact made in Mongolia last year as a ruling party, the Mongolian People's Party (MPP), for the first time retained power in the heat of a general election. The path to victory was spearheaded by Khurelsukh, the then prime minister. Khureslukh did indeed achieve numerous feats in his time as the leader of the former communist bloc MPP. Aside from his exploits in winning the groundbreaking consecutive victory in the parliamentary election, Khurelsukh is known as the first PM to overcome a no-confidence vote, the first to willingly resign from the prime ministership, the second to head a government going into its second term having been at the helm in the first term and the third to serve as the PM for a second time.

Now, with Mongolia celebrating 100 years since the Mongolian Revolution of March to July 1921, and with the centenary of the 1924 founding of the Mongolian People's Republic ahead, Khurelsukh has the chance to make a resounding mark as president.

Under the new Constitution, Khurelsukh can serve one term of six years (Image: Presidency of Mongolia).

Khurelsukh certainly looks the part of an ambitious politician and there are those who already worry that he might not want to hand over the reins of power after he is done serving as president. The lessons of how Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping have contrived to present themselves as indispensable did in fact prompt a rallying cry from presidential candidate Erdene Sodnomzundui of the Democratic Party (DP), who darkly warned that a vote for Khurelsukh was a vote for a "one-party state" (the MPP has a super-majority in parliament, though as president, Khurelsukh must give up his party affiliation).

No matter, the voters didn't buy the story of an authoritarian nightmare on the horizon and Erdene was defeated in a landslide, becoming the first opposition candidate to lose a presidential election with less than 20% of votes cast, barely recording 6% in fact. Third party candidate, Enhkbat Dangaasuren, did an awful lot better, winning 20%. Khurelsukh fairly romped home, taking more than 61% of the votes, although the turnout, it should be noted, was only 59%, the lowest on record.

No credible opposition party? 

After such a thumping loss at the polls, it is hard to describe the DP as a credible opposition party to the all-conquering MPP.

The rot set in years ago. In the general election of 2016, of the legislature's 76 seats, the DP won a paltry nine compared to the 37 it held previously, even though it only lost the popular vote by 2%. At the last moment, the DP contrived to change the electoral law to revert from semi-proportional voting to majority voting, thinking the system would offer it a landslide.

Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg, a political scientist, who at the time warned that the move would end disastrously for the DP, told bne IntelliNews: “I don’t know why they would do this, changing a system that favoured them; history has shown time and time again that the majority of the Mongolia’s people’s support lies with the MPP whereas the DP has roughly 25-30% of support from the general public.”

It was in 1996 that the DP, a coalition back then, won a majority with 50 parliamentary seats. That victory was thanks to the intervention of the US Republican Party, which convinced smaller parties and activists to unite against the MPP, Mongolia’s former communist party. But this unification of different interest groups laid the groundwork for the party’s downfall. In 2000, it retained only one seat in parliament as some parties splintered off from the Democratic Coalition. In 2012, the DP returned to power, winning 37 seats to the MPP’s 25. “That was because the MPP was fractured by the ousting of its leader Enkhbayar [Nambar], who took the party’s former name, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party [MPRP], with his party then gaining 11 seats that year,” Gerelt-Od added.

Getting back to this year’s presidential election and the DP’s disastrous performance, we see how another fracturing of a party, conducted in public, has led to an electoral catastrophe. The DP, split into two factions, went as far as holding two separate elections to determine its next top officials, with the process even having to address the nominating of rival DP presidential candidates. Ultimately, Erdene’s side won out, after a subsequent legal battle.

“The party has always had internal struggles since it became a coalition back in 1996 because it was founded by different people who wanted to overthrow the ruling party,” a DP party insider told bne Intellinews. “Their demise came when they only cared about retaining power and wanted to enrich themselves, and I blame former party leaders like Enkhbold Zandaakhuu, Erdene Sodnomzundui and [Khurelsukh’s predecessor as president] Battulga Khaltmaa,” he added.

Unlike the president who came before him, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, in office from 2009 to 2017, Battulga, a strongman who was occasionally referred to as “the Mongolian Donald Trump”, backed away from liberal ideologies and even pushed to bring back the death penalty. He struck deals with the MPP to gain more political clout and failed to become the unifying force the DP needed, ultimately backing one faction over the other.

A former DP member, who was one of the first people to take to the streets in 1990 to demand democracy, told this publication: “All of the people who said they wanted democracy actually stole a lot of the things from the country with the help of foreigners. I got sick of their lies, and I think the people did too. I don’t like Khurelsukh, he is too cunning to leave power after six years, but he also might prove us wrong, he might actually help Mongolia to progress.”

Political tactician

Khurelsukh may be Mongolia's best political strategist. He came to power by deposing the 29th prime minister and party leader, Erdenebat Jargaltulga, with the support of a DP coalition led by Erdene Sodnomzundui. Some 42 out of 73 members of parliament voted to oust Erdenebat. Khurelsukh's party bloc had blamed him for the presidential election loss to Battulga in 2017.

Khurelsukh holds aloft a seal of office (Image: Presidency of Mongolia).

After a year in power, Khurelsukh’s government became embroiled in an October 2018 scandal. Local investigative journalists uncovered how officials and MPs had misallocated government funding intended for small businesses. The government seemed doomed amid a big political scandal with substantial proof of connivance and corruption, but survived a no-confidence vote thanks to three DP members who broke ranks. Before the vote, Khurelsukh remarked: “Some of you are thinking and are afraid that I might turn into a dictator—I assure you that I won’t.” This gave the impression that Khurelsukh was overcoming political warfare inside his own party; subsequently, having won the vote, the Khurelsukh camp was emboldened, and, with the help of the three DP turncoats, it stood ready to crush those in the MPP who stood in its way.

Just two months after the no-confidence vote, Khurelsukh's bloc removed the speaker of parliament, the 2017 presidential candidate Enkhbold Miyegombo. He was the person obstructing Khurelsukh when it came to gaining full control of the MPP.

At the end of 2019, MPs voted to amend the constitution. More power went to the PM, while power was stripped away from the presidency. The changes were meant to take effect in 2025, but a majority of lawmakers ultimately decided that May 2020 would be D-Day. Battulga's hopes of getting re-elected were in ruins, with the reshaped Constitution banning the incumbent from running to retain office.

Had Battulga been his opponent in the presidential election, Khurelsukh might have had a run for his money. When the courts, in April, gave a final ruling that the then president was legally unable to run for a second term, Battulga tried his best to portray the ruling party as operating a dictatorship similar to that of Beijing, but Battulga then appeared to move away from making such allegations against the MPP, instead focusing on choosing between the would-be presidential candidates put forward by the riven DP.

There were insiders in the DP that even claimed that it was Khurelsukh who arranged for Erdene to be the chosen DP candidate so that he would have a poor rival for the throne. Khurelsukh's party bloc went as far, meanwhile, as absorbing Enkhbayar's party back into the MPP, effectively eliminating another possible candidate. As election day dawned, Khurelsukh was assured of success.

 ‘Mongolians will own their own wealth’

A key Khurelsukh campaign slogan was that “Mongolians will be the owners of their own wealth”, with reference to the country’s abundant mineral resources.

Mining has been the lifeblood of Mongolia's economy since the 2010s. National mineral deposits were estimated as worth $1.3tn and many foreign analysts predicted an economic boom. But it never materialised. Instead, claims of corruption and hostility toward Western mining companies grew, with the giant Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine the most contentious issue in the national debate. The mine, controlled by giant multinational corporation Rio Tinto’s subsidiary Turquoise Hill, has been beset by scandal and argument from day one, with a number of former politicians imprisoned.

While PM, Khurelsukh said he would amend the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement and cancel the associated Dubai Agreement. Right now, the parliament and government are unified in their opposition to the Dubai Agreement and are negotiating with Rio Tinto.

With Khurelsukh as president, the National Security Council should have a more cohesive strategy on Oyu Tolgoi, while it may make harsh judgements on other large mining projects, putting pressure on parliament and the government. Unlike previous government heads, whose misdealings with Rio Tinto were exposed by predecessors, Khurelsukh may be wise enough to strike a deal with Rio that will benefit the miner and ensure that his dealings with the company are shielded to the point that, retrospectively, he is seen in a favourable light.

Knowing that there are former leaders of government who are living in exile or resident in prison, he will seek to spin a tale that the reconfigured agreement with Rio is actually beneficial for Mongolians. Nonetheless, if the miner continues to stand back from developing a town adjacent to the mine and refuses to buy primarily locally sourced commodities for its mine operations, it will be business as usual. There will be very little reward for Mongolians regardless of what type of deal Khurelsukh strikes with Rio. 

The Khurelsukh government, saying nobody would be allowed to “steal” Mongolia’s resources, took strong action, revoking over 800 mining permits, which the then PM claimed were provided under the table by corrupt politicians. However, the National Federation for Artisanal and Small-scale Mining determined that the majority of the permits were actually not illegal, with the majority related to small-scale artisanal mines working within the confines of the law. Some of the artisanal miners were deemed pioneers in advancing economic rehabilitation in small-scale mining. Advances had been made, but most were stopped in their tracks. The mining reverted to quick and harmful practices. 

Covid, most formidable foe

COVID-19 was undoubtedly Khurelsukh's most formidable foe in his quest for a spectacular presidential victory. His administration basked in praise while the country was COVID-free for the majority of 2020. The success helped the MPP to its second consecutive parliamentary election win. But, despite excellent vaccination rates, Mongolia now has a troublingly high COVID infection rate—and observers have pointed the finger at presidential election rallies as possibly mainly to blame for the latest surge.

Trouble could be in store for this year's Naadam Festival, with a growing number of Mongolians opposed to any substantial gatherings of people. As the big traditional annual occasion will this year commemorate the centennial of the country's revolution—Naadam in fact has its roots in the revolution—Khurelsukh might be rather displeased if he finds himself having to preside over the beloved national holiday with very few spectators. But if the government decides on holding an in-person Naadam amid still high coronavirus infection rates, Khurelsukh’s image could be dealt a serious blow. Photographs of one person who was detained for demonstrating against the staging of the Khurelsukh inauguration have become a symbol against tyranny for some.

Mongolia needs to overcome the pandemic with no more serious delays. China is, for instance, still only allowing a few coal-laden Mongolian haulage trucks to cross the border per day. Coal exports remain crucial to Mongolia’s economy.

Earlier this year, the government pledged to provide 3% loans to SMEs to improve the economy; however, many of those who obtained a loan have been unable to start their businesses because, given border closures to the south, supplies have run out.

Mongolians are painfully aware that children and pregnant women are among those bearing the brunt of the country's COVID outbreak, not necessarily from infections in most cases, but from impacts on incomes, education and crucial services. Khurelsukh appears to have lofty goals for his administration, equivalent to those of a Khaan or a truly revolutionary and historic leader. Will they stand the immense test of a presidency that coincides with profound health and economic challenges?