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Mongolia’s opposition party won 85 percent of the seats in parliament with only 45 percent of the vote

- July 6, 2016
A man stands near a building with billboards for candidates from the Mongolian People’s Party, left, and the Democratic Party, right, in the Songinokhairkhand district of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on June 16. (Ganbat Namjilsangarav/Associated Press)

On June 29, Mongolia held its seventh parliamentary elections since transitioning to multi-party competitive rule in 1990. The preliminary results are now in. The main opposition, the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), has won a landslide victory, securing 65 seats in the 76-member parliament, the State Ikh Khural, with “only” 45 percent of the popular vote.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP), which has controlled nearly all government institutions since 2012, received 33 percent of the total votes and won just nine seats. Mongolia’s third party, Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), and an independent candidate each claimed one of the remaining two seats.

Pre-election polls were predicting a closely contested race between the two major parties in Mongolia. Here’s how this surprising, lopsided result came about and why it matters for this relatively young democracy.

Voters punished the incumbents

The ruling DP party was defeated because voters blamed it for mishandling the economy during its 2012-2016 tenure. In a pre-election survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in March, 92 percent of the respondents rated the current economic conditions as bad or very bad, 61 percent said the country is headed in the wrong direction, and 83 percent assessed the DP government’s performance as poor or very poor.

The DP came into power at the peak of economic growth, which reached 17 percent in 2011. Under DP’s leadership, growth declined in the following years to a single digit, foreign direct investment dried up and the national currency plummeted. The economic downturn resulted, in part, from a bitter dispute between the DP government and Rio Tinto Mining Corporation over the financing of a multi-billion dollar expansion of the Oyu-Tolgoi copper/gold mine.

Mongolia’s mining dependent economy continues to be in crisis, a consequence of the global commodities price slump and the steep decline in China’s demand for copper, coal, and other minerals, which make up more than 95 percent of the Mongolia’s exports. In the context of rising unemployment and a looming debt crisis, the election outcome should be interpreted as voters blaming the incumbent DP for the country’s economic ills and then voted the bums out of office, an illustration of what political scientists call “retrospective voting.”

Moreover, the voters’ wholesale rejection of DP’s senior leaders – including two former prime ministers and a former speaker of parliament – calls into question the DP’s entire reason to exist, at least in its current form. So far, the DP has been defined solely by its leaders’ personalities and charisma. This “personalism” has given way to breaks in the party. These breaks or factions in the DP have contributed to political instability and poor governance.

The old boss is the new boss – the MPP returns

In contrast with the outgoing government, the incoming MPP benefits from strong internal party discipline and a robust organizational structure. This former communist party ruled Mongolia from 1921 until 1996, even winning the first democratic election held in 1992. Since democratization, the party has abandoned Marxism, and dropped the word “revolutionary” from the party name. In this election, the party put forward a record number of new candidates. At a time when the vast majority of voters are tiring of recycled elites, this was a smart move: 36 out of the 65 MPs elected from this party are first-time officeholders.

People sit near a statue of Sukhbaatar, one of the founders of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), at a square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 30. (Ganbat Namjilsangarav/Associated Press Photo)

The MPP has interpreted their huge win as a clear mandate. Yet if the retrospective voting interpretation offered above is correct, voters elected the MPP not because the party offered distinct stances on issues or policy platforms that voters believed in. Rather, they voted for the opposition to express their disappointment and anger with the government.

The last minute changes to the electoral system end any hope for third parties

As I wrote in the pre-election report for Mongolia, this year’s election was held under new electoral rules. The last minute change in the electoral laws followed a Supreme Court ruling that tossed out the party-list proportional representation portion of the former electoral system.

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What has escaped both international and Mongolian media attention is that the Chief Justice of the court was ousted just one month before the court’s ruling. The timing of these events raises suspicion that political maneuvering drove the electoral change. Mongolia’s new rules create a “winner take all” electoral system, one that is used in the United States and the United Kingdom but has generally gone out of fashion.

The new electoral system put minor parties at a disadvantage and raised the barrier to entry for independents. Of the record number of independents–69 candidates — only one was elected. A former country singer turned politician, Javkhlan Samand, who is an unapologetic nationalist and outspoken critic of foreign miners, will be the sole independent voice in parliament. After winning, he went to the opening session of Parliament on horseback, wearing Deel, a traditional Mongolian form of dress.

Along with independents, the failure of third party candidates diminishes any hope of reshaping Mongolia’s unpopular two-party system. The MPRP, a party created by an MPP breakaway faction in 2012, lost all but one of its 11 seats. The party’s leader and former president of Mongolia, Enkhbayar Nambar, was barred from running after being convicted of corruption and embezzlement.

Mongolia’s election was one of the most disproportional in the world

Although the MPP won 85 percent of the seats in parliament, it only received 45 percent of the popular vote. On the flip side, 33 percent of the votes were cast for the DP, but it won just 12 percent of the seats. In other words, the election produced a large disparity between the percent of the popular vote received by each political party and the share of seats they won.

A local newspaper shows the results of Mongolian parliamentary elections inside the MPP headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 30. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

To put these results in perspective, consider the results from the 2012 elections, when a mixed majoritarian-proportional system was used. In that election, the DP received 35 percent of the popular vote and won 45 percent of the seats. The MPP lost the election by a close margin. It secured 34 percent of the seats with 31 percent of the popular vote. The MPRP became the first among minor parties to disrupt the two party system by winning 14 percent of the seats with 22 percent of the total vote. With less than a majority of the seats in parliament, the DP had to rely on the support of MPRP and Civil Will Green Party, which also won 2 seats.

The level of disproportionality between votes and seats in Mongolia is extreme, according to Michael Gallagher’s study of more than 1000 elections held in over 100 countries. Elections more disproportional than Mongolia’s occurred only in Hungary, where the ruling party has used their supermajority to enact sweeping political changes.

It is hard to say what would have happened in this year’s elections had the electoral system remained the same. One can only speculate that voters and parties would have had different strategic incentives under a closed PR party list system. Nevertheless, given the 2012 outcome, it is unlikely that the MPP would have won more than two-thirds of the seats with less than half of the electoral support nationwide.

The election was orderly and competitive, though not entirely free from “irregularities”  

The election overall was free and fair. International observers noted it was “orderly and competitive.” Turnout increased to 72 percent, stemming a long-run decline in electoral participation since Mongolia’s founding democratic election of 1992.

However, there were several major irregularities.

First, in the final hours on Election Day, several polling districts ran out of paper ballots and photocopies had to be used. Once the results were announced, the DP claimed that votes in these districts were miscounted.

Second, several DP candidates have launched an official complaint with the courts. They allege that their MPP opponents illegally transported thousands of out-of-district voters into their district on election day. In these districts, MPP candidates won with narrow margins — by a few hundred votes.

Third, on the eve of election day, the DP prime minister announced that the Trade and Development Bank of Mongolia purchased the Russian 49 percent stake in the Erdenet mine, which is a significant contributor to Mongolia’s GDP. By law, all political campaigning within 24 hours of voting is prohibited. MPP protested that the government was trying to sway votes. Voters appear to have agreed with the MPP, and likely recalled the corrupt privatizations under previous DP governments in the 1990s. The election results suggest that the announcement backfired for the DP.

Fourth, a few weeks before the election, MPRP’s campaign published a secret audio tape in which the MPP party boss can be heard discussing with his aides their plan to raise campaign funds by selling public sector jobs. “We can make approximately 60 billion tugrugs (roughly $30 million) from the capital city alone,” said one of the aides.

What’s at stake for Mongolian democracy?

With enough seats to override a presidential veto, the new government in Mongolia will be able to enact any changes to the constitution, if it chooses to do so. They will appoint a new Chief Justice and the head of the powerful Anti-Corruption agency. Political scientist Nancy Bermeo’s research shows that incremental de-democratization, rather than dramatic democratic breakdowns, has been on the rise in recent years, especially in countries where a single party dominates government. The outcome of Mongolia’s election likely raises the risk of this kind of democratic backsliding.

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