Thursday, May 28, 2009

More on the Presidential Election

"Sant Maral" Foundation has been conducting a survey called the "Politbaromter" for several years to measure the opinions of citizens nationwide. The April survey was published just before the presidential election. It is not clear if Sant Maral randomly selects its respondents, as the survey does not contain information about the methodology used, but it does say a "representative sample of 1,240 respondents" from the city and several rural provinces was taken. I mention the survey because it offers some contradictory data to some of the international coverage of the election.

The dominant narrative in the international media seems to be that the presidential election represented some sort of sweeping mandate for change. This, of course, is the narrative that the opposition party and the president-elect hammered home in the campaign. The election results show that in the city Elbegdorj's victory was decisive, and in the countryside he was competitive but lost the popular vote. The corollary conclusion from this is that there is a significant divide in political views between rural and urban constituencies, with Ulaanbaatar being predominantly more pro-Democratic Party (DP).

Both these claims are dubious. The president-elect won by little less than 4 percent of the popular vote. That is a respectable margin, but it also means that over 47% of the population voted for the status quo. Hardly a mandate for change. The second claim about the rural and urban divide is curious for the simple fact that the vast majority of the city's population until recently were residents of rural constituencies. This means that either the average migrant to the city is a DP supporter or that somehow living in the city makes the MPRP less appealing. The latter explanation seems to me to have a bit more bite, but maybe not for an obvious reason.

These voters are not anti-MPRP in the city, but rather anti-government. They are anti-government because arguably their living standards have fallen in comparison to rural constituents due to the reality of life in the city in comparison to the countryside--especially because public servant salaries have increased and the government employs a significant number of people in rural communities. Poverty, lack of services, crime, and unemployment in ger districts is naturally going to focus a lot of acrimony towards the people who are doing nothing to correct the imbalances; in other words, the government--not necessarily a particular political party.

This is demonstrated in the Sant Maral survey in the questions "In your opinion is the MPRP headed in the right or wrong direction?" and "In your opinion is the DP headed in the right or wrong direction?" The respondents for "right direction" for both questions are very similar across constituencies with a slight lead for the DP. However, respondents for "wrong direction" show a much stronger belief that the MPRP is heading in the wrong direction in the countryside and nationwide--but not in Ulaanbaatar. "Don't know" responses are similar to the "right direction" responses with approximately 36%-40% of respondents.

These questions garner somewhat ambiguous results, but the pattern, if there is one, seems to me to be an anti-government one. In other words, MPRP is competitive with DP (if 35%-40% responding you're headed in the right direction is a competition) in terms of satisfied constituents, but it is less competitive with dissatisfied constituents. This does not translate into a gain for DP, though, which might indicate that similar results would occur if the DP was the ruling party. A more likely explanation is that undecided city dwellers go to the polls thinking "Who is in charge?" and then vote for the opposition party.

Then one gets to the question about satisfaction with the government and the opposition, and the results show the government with a slight lead over the opposition nationwide. There are more people satisfied and less people dissatisfied with the government than the opposition, but basically the results are the same. There is only a marginal difference in opinion. Unfortunately there is no data parsing rural and urban, but given that Ulaanbaatar is approximately 50% of the population, any difference would probably be marginal like the reponses above.

This data suggests that either people are fairly apathetic about the political process or non-partisan voters (independent voters as we call them in the US) are not entirely convinced either party is all that good. Hardly a mandate for sweeping change. I would put my money on a calculated check on power and optimism that maybe change could come with someone new as the explanation for Elbegdorj's victory as opposed to broad reputiation of Enkhbayar or the MPRP.

The second part of the international narrative is somehow the new president will wield tremendous power in determining the status of important issues such as the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi projects. There is no doubt that the new president will try to involve himself in the process, and, as I alluded to in a previous post, he may have a better opportunity than any other president to impose himself on these important issues. But, there will be a political cost to him and his party if he tries to overreach.

First, back to the Sant Maral survey. Nationwide 40% of respondents think that the government (i.e. Prime Minister and Cabinet) should take a leading role in solving the country's problems. Parliament is the choice of 19.3%, and the president comes in at a distant third with 11.3%. Currently the government is a coalition government, a concession the MPRP accepted in the summer to have DP parliamentarians accept the results of the elections. There was no legal imperative that compelled MPRP to accept a coalition government given that the party won an outright majority of seats in Parliament. There certainly was a political imperative as the party struggled to distance itself from allegations of vote rigging and a fraudulent election. Power sharing was a visible way to demonstrate the party had not conspired to "steal the election."

With the victory of Elbegdorj, the magnanimous concession of Enkhbayar, and the statements from Bayar that it is not the MPRP's habit to contest the results of elections it has lost (starting the revisionist narrative about the parliamentary elections), and the perceptions of citizens about who has ultimate responsibility to solve the problems of the country, there is a possibility that the political pressure to maintain the coalition government could quickly erode with an overreaching and meddlesome president from the opposing party. The stage is already set for MPRP to dissolve the current government if politically they can get away with it. They did it in 2005 when the opportunity arose, and one would assume they'll do it again if they can. And, if Elbegdorj is an obstructionist without reason or wide popular support, then it is reasonable to think at some point in the coming year a new government will be formed under an full MPRP cabinet.

But, there would be a price to be paid, albiet a moderate one, on the MPRP side if things came to this. MPRP holds a 45 seat majority in Parliament, but that is 6 seats short of making legislation veto proof. That means that MPRP will still need to reach out to moderate DP members and the three independent MPs in order to ensure that any challenges from the president can easily be defeated. So, it is probably more likely for a new government to be formed if the president alienates 5 or more opposition MPs sufficiently enough to force them to accept a MPRP government, a not completely unlikely possibility given that Elbegdorj was forced to resign from his chairmanship of the DP after the Parliament elections due to significant internal dissent.

The bottom line: It is all very complicated, and it is too soon to tell what will happen. The one thing that is certain is that the president-elect's options are limited and the pressure is on him. There is much more that could go wrong for him than the MPRP, so the real unknown is whether he'll be able to beat the pressure while at the same time deliver noticeable and productive change. The other interesting thing to look out for is whether dissenting (from Elbegdorj) DP members and independent MPs will be the real winners from the election. If MPRP forms a new government, the real power will accumulate around MPs who will swing a legislative vote, further eroding the president's relevance if the MPRP wins the public relations and political horsetrading battle.

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