Enkhbayar grapples for redemption
Michael Kohn in Ulan Bator
Five years ago, Nambar Enkhbayar was at the peak of his political career. He was president of Mongolia, enjoyed widespread popularity and had already served his country as prime minister and speaker of parliament. World leaders courted him and global corporations begged for an audience as Mongolia sat on the precipice of a mining boom.
Today, he holds no political post, is routinely skewered in the media for controversial behaviour and is about to go on trial for corruption in the highest-profile case ever held in Mongolia. His physical appearance is gaunt and frail, in stark contrast to the broad-shouldered form he exhibited just a few years ago.
And yet through all of this, he remains the most popular politician in the country and an influential power broker in Mongolia's complicated political hierarchy.
Last month, Enkhbayar's Justice Coalition scored surprisingly well in parliamentary elections, winning 11 of the 76 seats in the Great Hural, a strong showing for its first ever appearance in any election.
The Democratic Party won the election with 31 seats, slightly ahead of the 25 seats won by the incumbent Mongolian People's Party (MPP). But no party won the required 39 seats needed to form a government, so the Democrats must seek support from rival parties to form a coalition government. Speaking after the election, Enkhbayar said he would consider a coalition government if the Democrats came calling.
'It is a possibility. We would have to see what the main principles needed to form a coalition would be. They would have to be good, transparent principles accepted by the general public,' he said.
These days, Enkhbayar speaks frequently about transparency, as Mongolian politicians routinely point fingers at each other, alleging corruption scandals, dodgy mining-license acquisitions and the theft of public land.
Later this month, Enkhbayar himself goes on trial on five counts of corruption, which he says were invented by his rivals in order to derail his political aspirations.
The charges include the illegal privatisation of a hotel, theft of television equipment donated by a Buddhist organisation, and evading import taxes on eight volumes of books he authored when they were shipped from South Korea.
The British-educated Enkhbayar ignored some 10 subpoenas before police finally broke into his home in April and hauled him off to prison.
Rather than quietly stew, Enkhbayar went on a 10-day hunger strike to protest at what he called human-rights abuses, and was released on bail. Video footage soon surfaced of the former president angrily berating hospital staff and threatening the officers that came to read his charges.
The incidents sparked outrage among young urban professionals and students who watched them unfold on YouTube. But Enkhbayar's popularity remained strong in rural areas, where a mostly conservative and traditional society was convinced that the media was creating a smear campaign.
Then in May came another blow to Enkhbayar's political prospects, when the country's election commission ruled him ineligible to run for parliament, citing his ongoing case and refusal to co-operate with Mongolia's Independent Agency Against Corruption.
'There are certain qualifications. You have to honour justice. You have to honour the rule of law. If you refuse a subpoena 10 times and say 'I don't want to follow this law', that is not good,' said Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj recently.
Winning a seat in parliament would have afforded Enkhbayar a certain level of immunity, but it was not to be, as the elections went ahead without his name on the ballot. Although Enkhbayar did not get a seat himself, he is credited with making the Justice Coalition the first real third-party force in modern Mongolian politics.
'For a party like that to become a formidable third force is an amazing success. It's a clear indicator that part of the population is very supportive of populism and resource nationalism,' said Dale Choi, chief investment strategist for Ulan Bator-based Frontier Securities.
Choi refers to Enkhbayar's populist campaign platform that calls for Mongolia to stake a greater claim on its own resources, rather than dole out more mining licenses to foreign companies. According to Enkhbayar's plan, mines that are foreign-owned should hand over their assets and property after a set period of time - about 20 years, he says - and the shares from those companies should be distributed evenly to the public.
Enkhbayar's party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), also advocates the renegotiation of the Canadian-owned Oyu Tolgoi, a major copper and gold mine under construction in the South Gobi. They insist that Mongolia take a majority stake in what is considered the country's flagship enterprise.
It was another mine, the Tavan Tolgoi thermal-coal deposit, that had a hand in changing the course of Enkhbayar's political career. Tavan Tolgoi, still in the start-up stage, is one of the world's largest coalfields and is destined to feed China's coal needs for the next two centuries. In the late 2000s, the future of Tavan Tolgoi was up for grabs as various business interests vied for a slice of the pie. According to Enkhbayar, the MPP leadership grabbed a stake in Tavan Tolgoi without his consent.
'I told them this project should not be privately owned. It should be a sort of public company in which every citizen can benefit. But they cheated me and took this project for just a small group of businesspeople, and they got this huge amount of money pouring into their pockets,' Enkhbayar said.
The Tavan Tolgoi incident was just the tip of the iceberg. More troubles arose during the 2009 presidential election, when he alleges the top MPP brass colluded with rival candidate Elbegdorj.
'They plotted behind my back with Mr Elbegdorj and made him president. That is not fair. That is not an election; it is just a political dirty trick. That happened here.'
Enkhbayar says his next move is to run for president next year, a possible rematch against Elbegdorj. He has no illusions that a target remains squarely on his back.
'Those against me are those who are afraid of me running for office, afraid that given the chance to come back to politics, I might have a completely different policy on the Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi projects, and really fight corruption, and really fight to have free and fair elections,' he said.
Enkhbayar says he is to blame for many of Mongolia's current economic, political and social problems.
'Not all mistakes were totally dependent on me, but I would like to say that I feel responsible for the current dire situation in this country. My position is very sincere, because I am trying to correct these mistakes, because I see these mistakes.
'I haven't done enough for the people of this country. Whether you are on a hunger strike, whether you are going to lose your life, that is not important. What is important is to pay back what you owe the people.'