Monday, May 25, 2009

Mongolia Elects New President

It’s official. According to, the General Election Committee has called the presidential election for Ts. Elbegdorj over his rival current President N. Enkhbayar. A year on from the parliamentary elections, which resulted in a riot that destroyed the MPRP headquarters and parts of the Cultural Palace, Mongolian voters seem to have voted for change. The preliminary results give President-elect Elbegdorj 51.24 percent of the vote nationwide, or just over a 40,000 vote lead out of 1.097 million total ballots cast (again, according to

I spent most of Sunday monitoring the election in Chingeltei District in the 12th-16th microdistrict polling stations. As the day progressed and I saw the amount of people voting, I started to get a feeling in my gut that things might go Elbegdorj's way. I thought Elbegdorj had little chance in winning the election before Sunday. However, something about the mix of people I saw voting and the extreme effort that everyone seemed to be making at the polling stations to remain fair, started to work on my gut. Something just seemed to indicate that people were taking the election seriously, and the people showing up at the polling stations were not interested in the status quo. This bares out in the election results for the city, at least, where Elbegdorj won by more than 12 points. He also seems to have remained competitive in the rural constituencies losing by only 2 points.

It is certainly not my intention to suggest that I guessed the correct outcome, but only to convey that I sensed that my previous estimation about Elbegdorj's chances was incorrect. The feeling actually compelled me to think about what if Elbegdorj won. What would that mean for the political landscape in Mongolia?

It is too early to tell, but there seems to be a reasonable argument to make that Sunday in many ways constituted a win-win situation for the ruling party. If Enkhbayar had won, then the status quo would have been maintained. An obvious win. Where we stand is slightly more interesting because the loss of the presidency at first blush may appear like a serious blow to the MPRP. However, it seems to me that much of the political pressure going forward is placed on Elbegdorj and by extension the opposition party. Another win for MPRP.

The president is a somewhat ill-defined position in the Mongolian constitution focused on being a ceremonial figurehead. However, there are provisions in the constitution which give the president the ability to impose himself on the political process; for example, the right to veto legislation passed by parliament. President Enkhbayar had made a point of stretching the limits of presidential power during his term by vetoing legislation and, most spectacularly, imposing a state of emergency and calling up the military during the riot last summer. This use of power was seen by his critics as an overreach, but his supporters saw it as a proper interpretation and execution of the powers vested in the president's office.

Elbegdorj is therefore inheriting an ascendant office with precedents that will allow him to impose himself more on the political process. Maybe much more than any previous president, in fact, and he has demonstrated in the past he is not afraid to start a political brawl.

This is where the real difficulty lies for Elbegdorj and where the opportunity may lie for MPRP. Prime Minister Bayar and President Elbegdorj will most certainly become contentious public rivals (if not already contentious enough). But, Bayar's authority to push the political process forward is given automatically by his status as the head of government. Elbegdorj, on the other hand, is inheriting a position that is imbued with some nascent executive powers, but the extent of those powers is still very much up for political debate, even if the electorate may be predisposed to accepting efforts to further strengthen them. The progress made with Enkhbayar could be easily undone by a politician ill prepared to handle the delicate nature of indirect power that the presidency represents. One too many gaffes or attempts to wield power that turn into obvious and easily defeated overreaching, and one's opponent in a rival party can look quite good by comparison.

The pressure is on Elbegdorj to perform, because, assuming the next few days pass without incident from MPRP supporters, the victory could potentially put a stamp of legitimacy on the parliamentary elections through revisionist history. The victory demonstrates that MPRP does not wield absolute power, and it took defeat magnanimously--unlike rival parties in the parliamentary elections. From a political strategy standpoint, it would make sense to play up this aspect of the election and then stand back and hope the new president makes a fool of himself.

I am not suggesting this is what will happen. I have no idea what kind of president Elbegdorj will make, or what kind of strategy MPRP will adopt to counter this victory. However, the political pressure will naturally build on Elbegdorj to perform above average as president and to effectively challenge the power of the government led by Bayar (assuming rivalries remain). I see the road ahead being much more difficult for the new president and somewhat easier for the ruling party because of the nature of the political situation. The onus is on the new president to prove he can deliver the change he promised, and if he fails to deliver, he may diminish the office of the presidency and his own party in the effort. The work begins today, and one almost thinks the old phrase "careful what you wish for..." is apt for the current situation.


Christian said...

Great read as always Brian!

Also, the way you describe the political situation in Mongolia, it sounds a little like the situation back here in the States. On the one hand, the MPRP suffered a loss, like the Republicans. But on the other, the pressure is now all on the Democrats, on both continents, to do right by the people.

Certainly, the parallel only goes so far. Enkhbayar (I don't think) wasn't as unpopular as Bush the Younger, and the MPRP still has a plurality (right?) in the Ikh Khural. But still, as you indicated, Elbegdorj just might have gotten more of the "Obama/Change" package than he expected.

Brian White, ACMS Resident Director said...

In a way the situation in the US is informing my thoughts with the same caveats that you mention.

The MPRP is hardly a party in disarray lost in the wilderness, and the verdict is still out whether Elbegdorj has the political talent to throw the MPRP off its game as President Obama continues to do with the Republican Party. Past experience and performance should not make supporters of the new president too sanguine, though.

Sitting back and waiting for Obama to mess up is not a very good strategy for his rivals, because he keeps proving time and again that he is exceptionally talented as a politician. Sitting back is like giving him license to control the debate, so the Republicans have erratically and disjointedly gone on the offensive, only making themselves less popular. That same sort of talent will need to show through with the new president in order to foment pressure on MPRP to go on the offensive in ultimately self-defeating ways for Elbegdorj's victory to be MPRP's defeat. Time will tell.