Democrats take Mongolia in new political direction
Michael Kohn in Ulan Bator
The transformation of Mongolia from a nomadic herdsman society to an increasingly urbanised nation has helped thrust the opposition Mongolian Democratic Party to victory in parliamentary elections.
The Democrats' key promise was the completion of a largely moribund 10-year-old scheme to privatise land. Under the scheme, every citizen is entitled to a 700 square metre plot of land in an urban area. In the campaign, voters flocked to the Democrat rallies to support this initiative, as the candidates said a land-owning society would create a solid middle class.
'This is our dream, to have a large middle class that will guarantee freedom and democracy. If people don't have land or benefits then we will have millions of poor people who will forever be angry at the system. That is dangerous for the peace and stability of our society,' said Tsedevdamba Oyungerel, a newly elected Member of Parliament from the MDP.
According to near final results of the June 28 polls, the MDP has won 31 seats, not enough to form a government by itself, but giving it the first opportunity to forge a coalition in which it would be the leading party.
Coming in second was the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP), the former communists who now describe themselves as left-leaning social democrats. The MPP won 25 seats, with victories in two other seats being challenged, and will become a minority in Parliament for only the second time in its 91-year history.
Led by career politician Norov Altanhuyag, one of the leaders of Mongolia's democratic movement in the early 1990s, the MDP focused on social issues and urban land rights.
The demographics in Mongolia have shifted in recent years and many nomads have given up their herds and moved to the city - over the past 15 years the population of Ulan Bator has doubled to 1.2 million inhabitants. Urbanisation has been a boon for the MDP, which has long maintained greater support in the city compared to rural areas.
Many of these urban migrants live a precarious existence in the city's 'ger' districts, named for the circular felt tents traditionally used by nomads. Most ger districts lack basic services such as running water, sewage and garbage collection; unemployment and alcoholism are rampant. The Democrats hit on this as their main campaign theme, vowing to bring jobs and infrastructure.
The Democrats vowed to slap a tax on raw coal exports, the profits of which would be used to bring infrastructure to the ger districts.
Because parliamentary and city elections were held simultaneously, the Democrats wisely campaigned together with the candidates running for seats in the city government.
Election observer Julian Dierkes, a professor at the University of British Colombia's Institute of Asian Research, suggests that the MDP parliamentary candidates rode the coattails of their city candidates as they promised to clean up Ulan Bator's messy land and corruption issues.
'Perhaps the DP's clean government campaign theme worked better in the city than in the countryside ... There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the Ulan Bator mayor and seemingly permanent MPP rule, which is blamed for illegal land sales.'
In the final count, the Democrats won a landslide victory, taking 11 of 14 parliamentary seats allotted to the districts of Ulan Bator.
Internal conflicts that have torn apart the MPP have helped the Democrats. Two years ago the MPP leadership split and former president Nambar Enkhbayar formed the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), taking several MPs. The MPRP ran as a protest party and drained votes from the MPP.
In April, state security forces broke into Enkhbayar's home, hauled away the former president with his feet still bare and bundled him into a police van. He was charged with five counts of corruption, but the timing made the arrest seem politically motivated. Enkhbayar denied all the charges and gained sympathy from the international press. The MPRP joined the Mongolian National Democratic Party (MNDP) to form the 'Justice Coalition', which won 11 seats, ones likely to have gone to the MPP had it not splintered.
The MPP has disputed the results, claiming the Democrats rigged the electronic voting machines. Several other parties joined the MPP protest and demanded manual recounts.
Assuming the results stand up, it will be up to Altanhuyag to lead the Democrats into careful negotiations with rival parties to form a coalition.
The MPP is one possible partner, eliminating the scenario of a powerful MPP opposition in Parliament. The Justice Coalition is another option, as several members are former Democrats.