Oliver Belfitt-Nash in Ulaanbaatar
February 15, 2012
In June, Mongolians will go to the polls. And while issues such as family, clan and religion are still important, the mining boom, business and nationalism have taken on a much greater significance in people's voting intentions.
The Mongolian people have the sense that their country is entering an important new era in its history, and this is expected to be reflected in voter turnout at the next parliamentary elections set for June 20 or June 27. Mongolia has had an unusually high turnout rate for its elections, starting at above 90% when the first elections were held in 1990 and still running at 75% in 2008 – high compared with the EU average of 65% and the US level of 63%.
The debates and campaigns are also feisty, with politicians regularly slandered, blamed, supported and praised on over 100 TV channels and in 120 published papers. This has brought the elections into most people's homes and changed the way those people vote, while amendments to the election law approved in December, which changes the system from a majoritarian one, under which individual candidates were elected by a majority vote, to a "mixed member proportional system", will also have an effect. "There has been a change in the mindset of the population" says Tulga Buya, PR representative of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. "Before people would vote by age and region, but now people are becoming more and more divided by class and income."
When communism collapsed in 1990, the new Democratic Party (DP), emerged as an alternative to the communist-era Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and those two parties have since battled for the hearts and minds of most people. Despite 70 years of Soviet rule in Mongolia, the old MPRP won the first ever democratic elections in Mongolia and have continued to hold the majority of power over the last 22 years. "The MPRP represent stability, but the DP are thought of as young and new, eager for change," says Enkhtur Sodnomtseren, CEO and founder of Perfect Solutions political consultancy. "Even though the DP MPs are probably older now than the others, this is what people continue to feel."
After a lull in support from 1996-2000, during which the DP won their only election for a full term, the MPRP returned in full force under the leadership of a young, charismatic straight-talker called Nambaryn Enkhbayar, who won 72 of the 79 seats in parliament and passed many new laws that are still in effect today. After occupying the presidency for the four years to 2009, Enkhbayar has now created his own splinter party and aims to use his influence to win back votes in June. When the old MPRP changed its name last year by removing the word "Revolutionary" to become just the "People's Revolutionary Party" (MPP), Enkhbayar nabbed the old name that was now up for grabs. Voters may now be able to choose between the old party with the new name (MPP) or the new party with an old name (MPRP) – as if politics wasn't confusing enough already.
While the MPP leadership considers the new MPRP illegitimate, some still support the old leader. "In Mongolia, there is very little policy differentiation between the parties anyway, there's no real ideological difference between the DP and MPP," says Tulga. "It's difficult to distinguish them, especially now we've had a coalition government for two terms. If one party makes a promise, the other will try to beat it."
This is reputedly how it came about that each Mongolian citizen will now receive MNT1.5m ($1,100) leading up to the elections. One party offered a sum of money and the opposition simply one-upped them and offered more. "People are tired of this bickering," says Tulga, "and the coalition has been unstable. This year the DP simply quit. Two out of every five Mongolians live below the poverty line and yet people hear of all the money coming in from the mining projects without seeing the effects. People need unity and development. We need results."
The 2009 agreement struck with international mining firms Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto to develop the world’s largest undeveloped copper-gold resource Oyu Tolgoi is one of the results – and to many it marks the pivotal point in the country's modern history.
In 2010, foreign direct investment rocketed as the estimated $6bn that will be required before even the metals can be dug up and sold started flowing in, bringing in its wake new apartment blocks, jobs and capital all across the city.
However, many believe the state's 34% share in the project is unfair, and that it should own a majority of the mine after the initial investment has been paid back. When MPs expressed this sentiment formally in October last year, Ivanhoe Mines shares' dropped 23% - something that could happen again. "Sure, [politicians will] play that card," says Enkhtur. "They won't think about Ivanhoe's stock price, they'll think about themselves."
Squeezed between China and Russia, the Mongolian people have known the dangers of relying on their neighbours. This turbulent political history combined with poor PR from Ivanhoe has made the giving away of 66% of the country's most prized asset a hard bargain for many to take. And waiting for the "trickle down" effects from the investment will only increase frustration and scepticism. "Rio Tinto may see Oyu Tolgoi as just a business project, but to us it is far more than that," says Tulga. "It is an extremely political issue, and we must get it right."