Communism rules in new democracy
Jasper Becker in Ulan Bator
TEN years ago, Chimmidorj, a portly and normally jovial Foreign Ministry official based in Ulan Bator, sat pondering the advent of democracy, this strange new thing that had suddenly surfaced in Mongolia's closed Stalinist dictatorship.
'First-past-the-post, proportional representation, independents, coalitions, what is all this?' he said, increasingly confused by the descriptions of the political systems which existed in the countries of half a dozen foreign reporters around him. 'I thought there was just one kind of democracy,' he complained.
Last Friday, Mr Chimmidorj was on the hustings himself, a candidate in today's parliamentary elections.
'It is hard to compete, there are seven other candidates, but it is okay,' he said. 'We've made some mistakes - we now have to explain to people what we have learned.' Mr Chimmidorj had joined one of the democratic parties which sprang up after 1990, and which in 1996 unexpectedly won a majority in the parliament - or the Hural as it is called - forming the first peaceful transfer of power from totalitarianism to democracy in the country's history.
When today's 1,250,000 electors cast their ballots, the democrats are expected to be returned to opposition and the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the former communists, will probably take half of the 76 seats.
At the end of the last day of campaigning on Friday, Mr Chimmidorj was enjoying himself at the last rally, held among the high-rise blocks in a suburb of Ulan Bator. Rock bands and singers performed before a young and cheerful crowd. Some of the performers had become famous in 1990 for singing the song Wake up Mongolia! which helped encourage the students who sat in the capital's main square on hunger strike.
Contrary to what might have been expected, given their historical pedigree, Mongolians have taken to democracy with an exuberant confidence. Twice as many candidates and parties, 603 and 13 respectively, are taking part this year and the city is noisy with fireworks, campaign minibuses, parades and rallies.
Across town, the head of the reformed communists, Enkhbayer, addressed a big crowd declaring in so many words that they had fought a good, clean fight - and let the best man win. If the communists had stayed in power 10 years ago, he would have probably become the chief ideological censor.
Now, if his party does win to form a new government, few observers expect any radical change, which may be why the events in Mongolia are not attracting much foreign attention. Only the Americans have sent many polling observers, invited by the International Republican Institute.
Mr Enkhbayer, a translator who has studied in Leeds, Britain, once said he was an admirer of Tony Blair and New Labour. What is interesting is why Mongolia, and not many better-placed nations, has so successfully made the transition to liberal democracy.
Although Mongolia is technically part of East Asia, and was nominally an independent state after the 1920s, it is often compared with the Central Asian states - dubbed the 'stans' after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
All of them - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan - have remained firmly under the control of strongmen who, apart from in Kyrgyzstan, are all former hardline communists. Democracy in most of the new states of the Caucasus has made a poor showing too, by and large.
With a pedigree that boasts the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin and his Mongolian apprentice, Marshal Choibalsan, Mongolia ought not to have done any better.
Just across the street from where the MPRP was holding its final rally is the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum. It is dedicated to all the victims of the communist era, and was only established thanks to the help of the first non-communist Government in 80 years.
The museum is actually a private initiative, in the house of a prime minister, Pelgidiin Genden, killed in 1937 by Stalin's 'Great Terror'. The house was returned to his family after 1996.
The museum makes clear that the terror began after Red Army troops annexed Mongolia in 1921, after a few years of freedom following the collapse of the Manchu empire.
Communist rule began first with the slaughter of the nobility, most of whom traced their origins to Genghis Khan, who became a non-person in the world's second communist state.
Then most of the monasteries were robbed of their wealth and the lamas shot or imprisoned. Stalin's secret police arrested and killed almost anyone with any education in the country, including all the top soldiers, administrators, teachers and writers. Full details of this holocaust only emerged after 1990, but Mongolia suffered as much as any nation in the 20th century.
The MPRP has disclaimed any responsibility for what happened, and on Friday night Mr Enkhbayer called on his audience to remember how his party had always been the guarantor of Mongolia's independence and political stability.
Not everyone would agree, but despite this, Mongolians have gone on to establish a rather tolerant society with a free and vibrant press.
A consensus about the need to change has somehow survived economic shock therapy urged on to the country by Jeffrey Sacks, the American economist whose advice helped chart the course steered by Russia, Poland and others.
More than any other Soviet bloc state, Mongolia had stuck to Stalinist central planning and even kept a statue of the tyrant when others had long ago discarded theirs. Consequently, there was nothing in shops 10 years ago, not even meat for this herding nation.
Now over 70 per cent of the economy has been privatised and Mongolia has followed a free market philosophy with the raw enthusiasm of the newly converted. For a time, it abolished all customs duties.
Yet the consequences are street children and statistics which claim that a third of the population still lives under the official poverty line. The Government operates on the life support system of foreign aid. Yet Mongolia seems a far happier place than China, for all its economic growth statistics.
About 17 big state-owned enterprises, the airline, the Gobi cashmere factory, the giant Erdenet copper mine, are still in the hands of the Government.
Deciding what to do with them will be a key issue for the incoming government, but generally Mongolians seem content with their choice. Perhaps the explanation is that whatever the statistics say, Ulan Bator and the countryside have prospered.
The streets are jammed with four-wheel drive vehicles, restaurants, Internet cafes and new shops all hinting at a black economy which never emerges in the statistics, but could be 40 per cent of the reported economy.
The herders who make up half the population have increased their herds from 26 million to 33 million, even given a series of natural disasters like this years Tzud, a freeze of the grasslands in which two million head of livestock perished.
There may be no satisfactory explanation as to why Mongolia has developed so differently from others. Perhaps, Mongolia may really show that politics is not just economics. Democracy has, perhaps, allowed the Mongolians to be themselves at long last, to reclaim their past and identity - something never measured in any table of statistics.
Jasper Becker (email@example.com) is the Post's Beijing bureau chief