Mongolians see change as Government House opens to public

Government House opens to public, symbolising new leaders' commitment to greater transparency

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2012, 4:07am

The bronze statue of Genghis Khan sitting at the top of a staircase in front of Mongolia's Government House has long appeared a lonely soul, receiving an audience only occasionally from a visiting head of state.

But it was never for the lack of interest that the general public was kept at bay. The statue stood alone because ropes cordoned it off from ordinary citizens, with soldiers shooing away those who came too close.

But the statue is receiving plenty of visitors of late, after Mongolia's new prime minister opened Government House to the public. Ordinary Mongolians can now get up close and personal with the statue of Genghis Khan, who is considered the nation's founding father. They can also visit a new museum tucked into one wing of the building.

Said Radansuren Javzan, 70, who was visiting the Parliament building for the first time: "I never imagined I'd be here. I think the government wants to be closer to the people."

The removal of the barriers is somewhat symbolic of changes blowing across the Mongolian steppes as the country's newly elected government has vowed greater openness, transparency and engagement with the public.

Although in power for just a few weeks, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) has already organised town hall meetings, laid out its plan for tackling corruption and discussed ways to include the public in budget planning.

Said Jargalsaikhan Dambadarjaa, the host of a popular political television talk show, Jargal DeFacto: "They are opening up and this is just the beginning. The concept of public governance will change"

Democracy in Mongolia began in 1990 when mass protests ended 69 years of communist rule. Democratic institutions took root, but the nation also suffered from corruption, a weak judicial system, poorly implemented laws and power abuse.

On its campaign trail in June, DP issued a manifesto, crafted largely by a new generation of Western-educated Mongolian leaders, calling for an immediate end to corruption and a re-engagement with the public.

Said Tsagaan Oyundari, DP's acting General Secretary and the brains behind the savvy public relations campaign that helped the Democrats to victory: "Government employees see themselves as lords and put themselves above ordinary people. Most government agencies play an important role in issuing licenses and this has led to a deeply-rooted system of corruption."

Oyundari, 43, a Berkeley School of Journalism graduate and former employee of US television network CBS, believes that her party's plan will give citizens a chance to act as watchdogs over their communities.

"Once people learn to participate in development plans and budget distribution, they will monitor the whole process by themselves," she said. "People, not just the government, will help to destroy corruption."

The DP's action plan will kick into high gear next spring when it says hundreds of debates will be organised across the country, primarily dealing with budgeting, town planning and zoning.

Democrats credit President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, for initiating the programme and starting up Mongolia's first town hall meetings three years ago. Western countries, rather than neighbouring China or Russia, have served as models for the plan.

Said Stanford-educated Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia's new Minister for Culture, Sports and Tourism: "We study Western practices of direct democracy. We study zoning regulations, public hearing procedures from the USA, Switzerland and Germany.

Observers say the government's new attitude is a response to years of power abuse by previous administrations.

Mongolia historian Jack Weatherford wrote in an e-mail to the South China Morning Post: "The collapse of the socialist regime in 1990 produced a decade of joyful exploration of freedom fuelled by international ideals of democracy, but it was followed by a decade of get-rich-quick corruption during which foreign companies and Mongolian politicians gang-raped the country."

Weatherford says it's now or never for the country which is at crossroads. "It is Mongolia's last chance to find a balance between the conflicting ideals of democracy and the greed of corporate and political corruption," he said.

So far, the public meetings have been a success, with long lines of agitated locals queuing to voice their opinions.

Said Jargalsaikhan, who attended one such meeting: "I got up and told them … they are going to need a bigger hall so that more people can come and discuss the issues."