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[Analytics] Are presidential elections putting Mongolian democracy in peril?

Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga waits before a welcoming ceremony ahead of diplomatic talks in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 3 September 2019 (Photo: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev via Reuters). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On June 9, presidential elections will take place in Mongolia for the eighth time since the democratic revolution in 1990. In the weeks leading up to the election, the political stakes have soared. Political polarization has been coupled with court rulings, presidential decrees, party splits, and mergers. Bat-Orgil Altankhuyag, Fernando Casal Bértoa specially for The Diplomat.

All of this has put Mongolia’s rather institutionalized party system in an unprecedented state of instability which, if not checked, might lead to the unexpected collapse of democracy in the country.

Mongolia never had a president until the figure was introduced in the aftermath of the 1990 revolution. Even then, Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, former chairman of the presidium of the People’s Great Khural (as the Communist parliament was named) and first Mongolian president, was appointed by the parliament. It was only two years later that the new constitution, after long and hard discussions, decided to include a popularly elected head of state. Ochirbat was re-elected as president with 60 percent of the vote on June 6, 1993. We revisit here not only the problems popular presidential elections have posed for Mongolian politics in the past, but also the reasons why the current situation is not surprising.

Ever since the American-based Spanish scholar Juan Linz published his seminal article “The Perils of Presidentialism” (1990), academics have showcased the problems popular presidential elections might entail. In a recent policy paper published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, another Spanish scholar (one of this paper’s authors) – although this time U.K.-based – warns anew about the perils of popular presidential elections. Among other issues, the paper highlights how popular presidential elections might lead to party de-institutionalization, party system fragmentation, and polarization. Each can be observed in the case of contemporary Mongolia.

Party System Fragmentation

Presidential office, even in countries like Mongolia where the position does not entail many real powers, constitutes the highest aspiration of many politicians. The idea of becoming head of state becomes an obsession for ambitious politicians who, in the case of losing office or not winning nomination, might decide to create their own parties with which they can bid again for the highest office. This, for example, is what happened after the 2009 presidential election, when the then incumbent president and Mongolia People’s Party (MPP) candidate, Enkhbayar Nambar, lost to the Democratic Party candidate. Nambar blamed his loss on MPP leaders and decided to establish a new party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), with other members of parliament originally from the MPP. Interestingly enough, these two parties will be merging again before a presidential election next month.

Party De-institutionalization: Factionalism

Given the zero-sum logic the popular election of a president entails, presidential elections tend to present an extremely personalistic character which, in turn, tends to lead to organizational splits and the formation of new, weaker political parties. This is especially the case in countries where, like Mongolia, parties are already extremely factionalized. The formation of MPRP in 2010 and the current internal disputes within the Democratic Party (DP) are clear examples of factions generating instability within parties.

The DP’s present troubles were mainly triggered by President Battulga Khaltmaa’s attempt to get the party’s nomination for the upcoming presidential elections. This led to a split in the party between those supporting Khaltmaa’s aspirations and those standing behind former DP Chairman Erdene Sodnomzundui.

It is important to understand that, contrary to most semi-presidential countries in the world, in Mongolia only parliamentary parties can nominate candidates in presidential elections. This poses a problem, especially when incumbents who have lost grip on their own party because of the obligation to resign their membership when elected, want to run for re-election. The DP case clearly illustrates the extent to which presidential elections might be a curse for Mongolian political parties. As former Minister of Justice Temuujin Khishigdemberel once put it, “parties suffer the most when their candidate is elected president.”

The split within the DP, Mongolia’s main opposition party, forced the Supreme Court to reject the petition of its two factions, which held party primaries simultaneously, to register their respective leaders as leader of the party and potentially a presidential candidate. This would have cleared the path for MPP to win the June presidential elections in the first round, if not for another important event, another outcome characteristic of semi-presidential regimes: polarization.

Polarization

Popular presidential elections might not just lead to an in increase in the level of electoral support for anti-establishment parties, but also foster political polarization. Because of the necessity of presidential candidates to appeal to voters beyond their own parties, presidential election campaigns in Mongolia have been characterized by negative campaigning, inimical competition, and populist discourse. There is no better example of this than Battulga’s 2017 campaign motto: “Mongolia will win.” To some it meant that his MPP rival, Enkhbold Miyegombo, was not a “pure” Mongolian. To others it meant that he was an agent of foreign powers or multinational corporations. Ideology and policies were left aside, leading to personal attacks among politicians and voter polarization.

The current situation characterized by MPP’s illegal banning by the president in response to a resolution of the Constitutional Court barring him from running in the forthcoming elections is another example of how popular presidential elections constitute a venue for polarization, more so than legislative elections.

Government Instability

Presidential elections can also lead to government instability and, ultimately, party system change and de-institutionalization. Khurelsukh Ukhanaa’s recent resignation is just the most recent example. Under the excuse of public demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar’s central square, despite MPP’s supermajority after the 2020 parliamentary elections, Khurelsukh became the first prime minister to resign, making his cabinet the shortest in the history of Mongolian democracy. Now it is clear that it was just a pretext, and that his intention was to run in the forthcoming presidential elections. There have been many other instances where cabinet changes where triggered by presidential elections or presidential power struggles within ruling parties. Former Prime Minister Altankhuyag Norov has continuously maintained that it was President Elbegdorj who orchestrated his removal from office, even though they were both from the same party, the DP.

The timing of presidential elections, just one year apart from parliamentary polls, has been also an important factor behind the country’s political turmoil, as newly formed governments always need to adjust to results in the presidential contest. If Khurelshukh loses, the current Luvsannamsrai cabinet, formed at the end of January, is expected to change again.

Conclusion

Scholars have shown that the popular election of a country’s head of state can be a peril for its democracy. By increasing fragmentation, weakening political parties, hindering party system institutionalization, increasing government instability, and promoting polarization, popular presidential elections perhaps should be avoided, especially in new democracies. As explained above, the current political situation seems to confirm these fears, showing that – barely one year after a constitutional reform was passed – an important opportunity to introduce the type of checks and balances characteristic of parliamentary regimes proposed by Mongolian experts was missed.

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