This month, just days apart, two heads of state were elected not by the majority of the people they now lead but by small bodies of Very Important Persons. Pope Francis, the temporal head of Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign state, and President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s most populous, were chosen by assemblies of cardinals and cadres, respectively.
The Mongol and Turkic peoples – who, for the most part of their histories, lived on the northern and western edges of the Chinese empire – tended to have their leaders conferred or rubber-stamped by similar councils of princes and tribal elders. Genghis Khan, for example, was elected supreme leader of all the Mongols by a khuruldai council, in 1206. So important was the council that when Ogedei Khan and Mongke Khan died, in 1241 and 1259, respectively, the Mongol princes who were pounding the defences of Europe and the Levant withdrew en masse to their heartland to attend the council and elect the next khan.
The early Manchu had a similar tradition of elective monarchy, but after conquering China in 1644 they adopted the (theoretically) more predictable Han Chinese system, in which son succeeded father.
The word khuruldai survives in various forms in Mongolian and Turkish, and refers to gatherings.