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Why This Election is Important

By MICHELLE TOLSON

Mongolia experienced incredible changes starting from 1990 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union by fashioning a free market economy and democratic political system. The economic upheaval has been widely documented as the country lost its manufacturing system supported by the Soviets and began the process of privatization. Many had to return to herding and small-scale businesses to survive as detailed by the 2007 International Labor Organization (ILO) report on Mongolia’s informal economy. However, much has changed since that report was published. The previous 9 percent output of the mining sector in 2007 has been replaced with mining being the country’s main source of revenue in 2012. The free market economy of 2007, according to the report, had an estimated 60 percent of informal workers (including livestock and agriculture), yet is currently dominated by large scale investment in the mining industry. Mongolia is not alone in its extractive industry and mining wealth as its other neighbors in Central Asia have this as well. China has also been reaping the benefits of mining wealth in the Autonomous Regions of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (Uyghur). Yet the defining difference between Mongolia and its neighbors is its democratic structure.
The Economic Intelligence Report (EIR) of 2011, which rates countries by their political structure, details a map of Asia showing Mongolia as a democratic island surrounded by authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes. Although EIR rates Mongolia as a “flawed democracy,” listed as 69 out of 167, the country has several developed countries sharing that category, such as France and Italy. Its strengthening democracy is partly why Mongolia has been attractive to investors because it denotes a certain level of stability and transparency.
Yet, the warnings issued by foreign consulates during elections time in Ulaanbaatar to either leave the city or stay indoors, show that there is a certain amount of risk during this season. In 2008 there were widespread riots after the elections due to the mistrust in the voting process and cited election irregularities. The situation was not enough to void the election but many people were arrested when protests broke out. About 800 were arrested while many were injured and five were killed when police officers fired into the crowds, according the 2008 Mongolian Women’s Fund (MONES) report – The Field of Women’s Organizing in Mongolia. During this tumultuous year, the 30 percent quota system for women in parliament was struck down, representing a backsliding for gender equality and political representation for women. The riots highlighted the perceived lack of transparency in the election process and drew international concerns about the state of the country’s democracy.
What is different about this election?
Reviewing the gains of 2012, the quota system for women in parliament—though not up to its previous level—has been reestablished this year at 20 percent and it set to increase representation of women in parliament from the dismal 3.9 percent previously held. Mongolia has had one of the lowest representations of women in government globally, according to the Intra-Parliamentary Union report for 2012. Though Mongolia has traditionally had strong participation of women in the civil society sector since the 1920’s – as noted by the 2008 MONES report, women’s political representation necessary to create and implement policies that highlight gender issues is still a work in progress.
Another key gain is the passage of anti-corruption legislation to improve government transparency. This is seen as important by not only foreigner investors – who nervously eye the evolution of the country as mining projects come to fruition, but also Mongolians who have been experiencing record-breaking inflation. The economy grew by 17 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank Report released in 2012, but not everyone is experiencing greater salaries to match the growth.
Brandon Miliate, who contributes to the popular analysis blog Mongolia Today, has commented on Mongolian politics. He is also a graduate student researching “the role foreign relations play in elections.” Speaking with him, he relayed that he believes Mongolians are very aware of the terminology used by economists to describe possible predicaments brought on by the influx of mining wealth, such as The Dutch Disease. They have their futures at stake and want a government that represents its people, not investors. Miliate says “Mongolians need to know that they are benefitting from their wealth and not losing their sovereignty.”
Miliate notes that small-states such as Mongolia – self-governing indigenous populations – require different strategies for survival compared to other small countries with alliances in regional structures able to share these concerns, such as Laos and Cambodia in ASEAN. Mongolia holds observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) but is not a full member, instead opting to focus on its independence from Russia and China by investing in the “Third Neighbor” policy.
The Third Neighbor policy—directly written into Mongolia’s concept of foreign policy in article 12.a—is a leveraging system whereby the country firmly establishes itself with other highly developed (democratic) countries in Asia, Europe and North America in relation to its more powerful neighbors, China and Russia. Looking at the map of full members of the SCO—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan— Mongolia appears isolated. Full members in the SCO are either authoritarian governments, or hybrid regimes, paralleling the Economic Intelligence Report map of democratic governments. Mongolia also invests in foreign relations beyond highly developed countries, strengthening relations between democratic countries like India and Thailand. Miliate’s bachelor’s thesis detailed the relationship between India and Mongolia as a counterbalance to China’s strong influence in Asia. Both Mongolia and India are observers in the SCO and share the “flawed democracy” status of the Economist’s report.
These relationships—and Mongolia’s status as a democratic country amidst authoritarian and hybrid regimes, reveal that though the elections could possibly feature voting irregularities and protests such as what occurred in 2008, the country’s status as a democracy is not in peril.
Mongolia’s nationalism has a self-protective measure that is in line with defining itself from its two powerful neighbors. The underlying concern seems to be that the country’s mining wealth does not become an avenue for Mongolia to lose its sovereignty. With some understanding, it is becomes easier to view the concerns voiced by political parties as merely an echo of the worries of their constituents. Miliate clarifies in his own personal blog – http://miliatematters.com – that nationalist movements are not solely based on ethnic superiority found in economically stronger countries but more on what he terms “small-state survival fears” which are defensive in nature. Mongolians in Outer Mongolia are well aware of the situation in Inner Mongolia in relation to the mining wealth there and do not want a repeat. Analysis such as this shines a light on a situation that confuses and frustrates many foreigners who have experienced nationalistic hostilities. It also opens a door to understanding why gender equality is met with resistance, as Mongolian women are seen as the “bearers of state survival” (i.e.: genetic bearers of future Mongolians). However, many see these perspectives as growing pains in a young democracy experiencing rapid economic growth.
MONFEMNET, an umbrella organization of Mongolian civil society and informal groups committed to gender justice, human rights, social justice and substantive democracy, addressed this topic during their annual conference “Through Women’s Eyes” in 2009. In 2009 they proposed to view human and national security by taking into account gender-specific vulnerabilities, viewing violence against women and children, sexual exploitation and prostitution, labor exports and migration as human and national security issues. Furthermore, MONFEMNET advocated viewing the development of a strong civil society as a guarantee of Mongolia’s national/human security and foundation of Mongolia’s democratic development.
By increasing the transparency of the government – which the anti-corruption legislation lays the foundation for, and by improving representation of women in politics, Mongolia is showing that it is taking steps toward a stronger democratic process, a partial solution to the concerns of Mongolians and international investors alike. Though the outcome of the election is uncertain—and the response to that outcome—many positive developments are already in place.
I spoke with Undarya Tumursukh, National Coordinator for MONFEMNET in April of this year, asking for her opinion on the reinstatement of the 20 percent quota. Tumursukh said “The new election law does include a women’s quota. However, it is too low – 20% and there are no guarantees that women candidates will have the same chance to be elected as male candidates. The field is far from being level for women as well as many other social groups who lack money, power or culturally legitimate status (ethnic minorities, low-income people, rural population, etc.). This is a serious drawback of the Mongolian political system in general and the party system in particular – lack of representativeness. However, activists are engaged in activism precisely because the reality we have is not the reality we want to have and we have faith in our collective ability to bring about positive changes.”
With hopeful outlooks such as Tumursukh’s followed by voter engagement, a brighter future is possible for Mongolia’s most marginalized. Whether their concerns align with international investors, is another matter.

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Posted by on Aug 28 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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