When Mongolia held its June 24 parliamentary elections, more than 73 percent of voters turned up despite the heavy rains, and followed strict two-meter distancing requirements to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. The preliminary results show that the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), led by Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, won a landslide victory, securing 62 seats in the 76-member parliament with only 45 percent of the total votes.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) came in a distant second, winning 11 seats with 25 percent of the total votes. Two minor parties and an independent candidate won the remaining three seats. Of the 606 total candidates, 121 ran as an independent, far more than any previous election. Overall, a record number of candidates from 13 parties and four electoral coalitions competed this year.
Why so many parties — and so many independent candidates? This was a direct response to the widespread public distrust of the two major parties, as both the MPP and the DP were involved in corruption scandals in recent years.
Despite its unpopularity, here’s how the MPP managed to win, and what these results mean for this young democracy.
The MPP manipulated the electoral rules
Mongolia’s ruling parties have frequently and arbitrarily manipulated the electoral rules to benefit themselves at the expense of third parties, often changing the system shortly before election day. In December, the MPP replaced the single-member district plurality system used in the previous election with a multi-member district plurality voting.
Mongolia had used this type of “block-voting” only twice in the past. In both of those elections, the MPP won. Elsewhere in the world, only eight countries use this system, including Kuwait, Mauritius and Syria.
Under the current block-voting rules, Mongolia now has 29 electoral districts that are uneven in terms of population, and each district chooses two or three members of parliament. The winners in each constituency were determined by those with the most votes. But this “winners take all” approach discouraged voters from supporting minor parties, and encouraged them to support candidates from one of the two major parties.
The MPP redrew the electoral map, providing 52 of 76 seats to rural districts where its support base has been robust. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where nearly half of Mongolian citizens live, now has just 24 seats, or one-third of the total. This is four seats fewer than the last election.
The new rules also increased the size, in terms of both land and population, of electoral districts — and that benefited established parties with more resources, like the MPP. Recent elections have also restricted the official campaigning period to 21 days, a period too short for lesser-known candidates to make their case to a large number of voters.
Low virus cases may have boosted support for the government
Following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, Mongolia became the second country, after North Korea, to close its border with China. In early February, the MPP government canceled a national holiday, prohibited all international travel, closed public facilities, instituted social distancing measures and required citizens to wear masks. On the eve of election day, Mongolia had logged 215 confirmed cases, all of them imported.
A zero rate community spread of the virus bolstered the MPP’s governing credentials at a time when citizens were wary of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. A recent public opinion survey revealed that covid-19 was the third most pressing sociopolitical problem facing Mongolian citizens. Nearly half of the respondents in the poll said the government’s most significant success had been its response to the pandemic.
The DP suffered from internal strife
The MPP campaigned on its successful pandemic response well as reducing air pollution, which has reached toxic levels in recent years. Another major theme of the MPP campaign was social justice and fighting corruption. Prime Minister Khurelsukh portrayed himself as a decisive leader courageously taking on what he calls “the 30 rich families” who unjustly benefit from the country’s vast mineral resources, at the expense of ordinary citizens.
In contrast, the DP failed to run a cohesive campaign with a unified message. The MPP attacked the party’s leader, Erdene Sodnomzundui, for allegedly having sold the DP candidate slots to whomever paid the most money. He did not actively campaign on behalf of other DP candidates, in contrast to the prime minister — who managed to tour the country in less than three weeks to muster voter support. Factional disputes plagued the DP, prompting some of its prominent leaders to set up a third party before the election and others to run independent campaigns, effectively splitting the party’s support base.
The two major parties’ election platforms differed little. Both promised to create jobs through direct government involvement in the economy, especially in heavy industry and mining. There were no major policy debates — instead, the election was more about the personality of the party leaders. The MPP succeeded in casting the race as a choice between its popular leader Khurelsukh and the uncharismatic DP leader, Erdene.
Six candidates were arrested
This year’s election was the eighth parliamentary election in Mongolia’s democratic history, which began with a peaceful transition from communism in 1990. However, for the first time in these 30 years, six candidates — four from opposition parties, one independent and one from the MPP — were arrested during the campaign. Five were prominent politicians who have been in direct conflict with either President Battulga Khaltmaa or Prime Minister Khurelsukh, suggesting that these arrests were politically motivated.
The arrests appear to be a clear violation of Mongolia’s Law on Elections, which provides election candidates with immunity from prosecution. To observers, the arrests were a worrying development following the threats to democracy from last year’s controversial law that threatened judicial independence. With the MPP now in full control of nearly all government institutions, the risk of further democratic erosion remains high.
Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a PhD candidate in political science at Waseda University in Tokyo.