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Mongolia just elected a former wrestler as its president, after its most divisive election ever

- July 13, 2017
Mongolia’s new president Khaltmaa Battulga, left, is accompanied by outgoing president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj during his inauguration ceremony in Ulaanbaatar on July 10, 2017. (Reuters/B. Rentsendorj)

On July 7, Mongolians elected a new president: Khaltmaa Battulga of the Democratic Party (DP), a former artist and world champion in the martial art of sambo. In the country’s first runoff election, Battulga won 50.6 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Miyegombo Enkhbold of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which holds a supermajority in parliament.

Battulga was sworn into office on July 11, succeeding his co-partisan and outgoing president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who was ineligible for reelection, having served two consecutive terms. Thus, divided government — also known as cohabitation — continues in Mongolia: A DP president faces a parliament controlled by the MPP.

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Voters made clear their rejection of the incumbent MPP in the fiercely contested first round. Battulga was front-runner on June 26 with 38 percent of the votes, while Enkhbold was essentially tied with the third-party candidate Sainkhuu Ganbaatar, of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Enkhbold made it into the second round by less than 2,000 votes, out of more than 1.3 million votes cast. Ganbaatar alleged fraud, refused to accept the results, and demanded a recount. However, subsequent recounting in the disputed voting districts authenticated the original results.

Turnout, which has been declining for years, held steady from the previous presidential election. Of all Mongolia’s registered voters, 68.2 and 60.8 percent voted in the first and second rounds, respectively.

Most divisive election in Mongolia’s history  

As I wrote here before the election, all three candidates were tainted by corruption scandals. Their campaigns mostly lacked any substantive policy discussions; rather, the candidates relied on mudslinging via polarized traditional and social media outlets.

In particular, Battulga used a combination of Sinophobia, nationalism, and fearmongering to win votes. His supporters accused Enkhbold of having Chinese ancestry, while his campaign adopted a slogan, “Mongol Ylna,” which was interpreted by many voters as “a Mongol will triumph.” The implication that Battulga’s rival was not a true Mongolian polarized the electorate to a degree not seen before.

Furthermore, the DP barraged the electorate with uncorroborated propaganda, including numerous leaked and edited videos designed to make voters fear the MPP had stolen the past year’s parliamentary election and was now planning to rig the presidential election nationwide. Despite the implication, there was no significant evidence of electoral fraud.

On the other side, MPP forces accused Battulga of embezzlement and of being secretly married to a Russian woman. Meanwhile, the MPRP candidate claimed the DP and the MPP were oligarchs colluding with powerful domestic and foreign business interests to exploit Mongolia’s mineral wealth at the expense of the people.

Dissatisfaction with the divisive campaign led to a record number of protest votes this year. About 1.5 percent of the registered voters cast a blank vote in the first round. Some of the protest voters organized a movement under the slogan “Tsagaan Songolt Hiitsgeey,” or “Let’s Cast a White Vote.”

The movement urged voters to reject both candidates in the runoff, sending a message to Mongolia’s parties that it was time for change. Had neither candidate received the required absolute majority in the second round, the law would have required parties to put forward different candidates in a new election. The MPRP sensed an opportunity for a rematch and hijacked the protest movement, adopted its slogan, and pleaded with Ganbaatar’s supporters to cast a blank vote. In the end, the number of blank votes reached over 8 percent; more than 10 percent was needed to invalidate the election.

Each party tried to woo — or buy — votes  

Just a few days before the second round was scheduled to take place, the DP pledged to forgive all individual financial debts nationwide if their candidate Battulga won. To do this, Battulga proposed that every citizen would receive dividend payments from the shares of Mongolia’s largest coal mine, Tavan Tolgoi. These shares are so-called “1072 shares” because 1072 individual shares were first distributed to every Mongolian after the 2008 election, when the two major parties outbid each other with promises of direct cash distribution.

The MPP responded to this unexpected DP pledge with its own last-minute announcement that the government would distribute shares from the Erdenet copper mine and would resume the universal “child money” program. The “child money” program, first proposed by the DP in 2004 election, was recently changed into a conditional cash transfer to the poor rather than a universal handout, as the International Momentary Fund had demanded. Despite the IMF requirement, on the eve of Election Day, the government announced it had started transferring $22 million, or 48.4 billion tugrugs, of child money to more than 400,000 households.

These last-minute desperate measures to woo (or buy) voters conflict with Mongolian election law, which prohibits candidates from making promises that have direct monetary value and from changing their pre-audited platform in mid-election season.

A rejection of the austerity plan mandated by the IMF bailout — or a personality contest based on the least corrupt candidate?

One way to interpret Battulga’s victory is that voters rejected the MPP austerity plan the IMF bailout required. Another way is to infer that in this election, citizens voted not on party platforms but on candidates’ personalities and reputations. The latter explanation would explain why Enkhbold lost all but one of the voting districts in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, where over half of Mongolia’s population resides: As mayor, Enkhbold was dogged by corruption allegations that he pocketed funds as he privatized land.

Battulga will face a difficult landscape as president: a divided electorate and a unified, embittered parliamentary opposition. In the campaign, Battulga made ambitious pledges to reduce unemployment, free citizens of debt, and balance Mongolia’s trade dependence on China. He painted the presidency as an all-powerful institution that could solve pressing social issues.

He will soon confront political reality: Mongolia’s semi-presidential constitution will significantly constrain what he is legally permitted to do. And without parliament’s (i.e., the MPP’s) cooperation, Battulga’s presidency will be the equivalent of a lame duck from the beginning.

Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a graduate student in the School of Political Science & Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo.