Debriefing the 8th Mongolian Presidential Election: A Virtual Closed Panel Discussion with IRI and The Asia Foundation

Following Mongolia’s June 9 presidential election, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and The Asia Foundation (TAF) hosted a virtual session on its results and outcomes. The session was led by IRI-Mongolia’s Resident Program Director Craig Castagna and The Asia Foundation’s Mongolia Country Representative Mark Koenig and provided an assessment of events leading up to and during the election, including discussion on the country’s post-election political landscape. IRI’s Vice President for Programs, Scott Mastic, provided opening remarks.

A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows. 

Rhonda Mays:

… our time as best we can. First, let me just introduce myself really quickly. My name is Rhonda Mays, and I’m the Deputy Director for the Asia Pacific Division at IRI. We’re really excited to be hosting this session this morning with our partners at The Asia Foundation to talk about Mongolia’s recent presidential election and all of the political environment around that, and what happened in those elections.

Just a couple of housekeeping notes to kick us off. First, we are recording the session, so just for your awareness as you’re asking questions. And then the second is just to please make sure that you keep your microphone muted if you’re not speaking. To kick us off, I’m going to hand it over to IRI’s Vice President for Programs, Scott Mastic, who’s going to provide some opening remarks for us, and then he will hand it over to IRI Resident Program Director, Craig Castagna, who will speak for a bit, followed by the Asia Foundation country representative, Mark Koenig, and then after that, we’ll have some Q&A. Scott, over to you.

Scott Mastic:

Thank you, Rhonda. I’m going to make sure I am now unmuted. Could everyone hear me? Yes, alright. Great. Good morning to everybody here on the East Coast in the United States and good evening to our colleagues in Mongolia and Asia broadly. I’m Scott Mastic, Vice President for Programs at the International Republican Institute.

More than 30 years after it transitioned away from communism, Mongolia’s democracy is being tested in new ways as events surrounding the recent June 9 presidential election vividly highlight the challenges Mongolia faces. The April 2021 Constitutional Court’s decision declaring President Battulga ineligible to run for a second term, per change constitutional amendments, was highly controversial and contributed to polarizing rhetoric and political fracturing between party leaders throughout the campaign period.

ODIHR’s election observation findings characterize the election as transparent and having complied with international standards. However, it noted there was limited independent information on candidates in the media, public debate or platform analysis for citizens. It also critiqued lack of women’s participation in campaign, suggesting messages appealing to women were virtually absent from candidate platforms.

These and other factors may have contributed to low voter participation in the election. Turnout was 59.4% of the eligible population, regrettably, the lowest turnout for a presidential election in the country’s democratic history. Despite this, Mongolia’s commitment to open elections and preservation of democratic institutions from its noteworthy shows resilience to regional pressures, and let’s not forget Mongolia remains a democracy surrounded by authoritarian states.

The Mongolian people also still overwhelmingly support democracy as the best option for their country, there’s plenty of data out there that shows this. And so, we should at once be interested in concern perhaps, but also not lose sight of the considerable democratic progress Mongolia has made over the years. Today we will hear from IRI, Mongolia Director, Craig Castagna, and Asia Foundation country representative, Mark Koenig, both of whom were present in Ulan Bator throughout the campaign period and the election thanks to a USAID CEPPS program being implemented by our respective organizations.

Craig and Mark, who worked on a variety of activities around the elections, will share insights and analysis on the June 9th election with an eye toward what comes next. Mongolia has and remains to be a critically strategic partner for the United States in this part of the world. We look forward to hearing from each of them today. We have about 30 minutes to hear from Craig and Mark, and after that, we’re going to go to questions that will be moderated by Rhonda Mays, Asian Pacific Region Deputy Director. Without further delay, I will turn the floor over to you, Craig, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Craig Castagna:

Thank you, Scott, and thank you, Rhonda, and thank you everyone for joining. Mark and I are happy to share some of our analysis and insights from the recent election that took place here, and like Scott said, I’m going to provide a couple of brief remarks giving an overview of what just took place, and then Mark will tag onto that, and add in some further analysis.

Basically, as Scott had mentioned in his opening, Mongolia recently held its presidential election on June 9th, and this was the eighth presidential election since the country had its first presidential election back in 1993. And I would say that you could describe this election as pretty low key, almost a quiet campaign, and it seemed to have just came and went quite quickly.

After a brief 15-day campaign period, and in the middle of a spike in COVID cases, Mongolians overwhelmingly elected their former Prime Minister and the now former, Mongolian People’s Party Chair, Khurelsukh, and this was a historic landslide where he’d gone at 70% of the vote. That was the most that any presidential candidate had ever gone into in an election.

And so, Khurelsukh’s victory follows major MPP victories recently in the June 2020 parliamentary election. The MPP maintained their super majority in the State Great Khural, and in October 2020 in the local elections, they won most of the aimags, and they maintained control over the UB City Council. At this point, the MPP now controls the presidency, the cabinet, and they hold and still hold a super majority in parliament.

And so, in vast contrast to the MPP, we have an opposition party, a major opposition party, the Democratic Party, which is really divided at the moment. They had a historically poor showing in this recent presidential election. Their candidate got only 6% of the vote. And at this point there are effectively two DPs. There’s not really one Democratic Party.

You have two Democratic Parties and there’s lots of legal and political limbo that the two factions are going over. Many of this is being litigated in the courts and it has been litigated in the courts for many months now, trying to answer the question of who is the legitimate chair? Who is the legitimate DP?

As a result, DP’s highest profile candidate, Battulga, the former president, like Scott had mentioned, he was ineligible to run after the constitutional court ruled back in April, that incumbents were not eligible to run and past presidents would be barred from running again. Essentially, this only exacerbated the party rift and the candidate from the DP ended up being S. Erdene, who essentially struggled with messaging and struggled to really unify the party behind him throughout the very short campaign.

At the end of this, whereas Khurelsukh was overwhelmingly elected in a landslide, the DP candidate really struggled to get any traction at all, and resulted in this historically poor showing. And in the end, he got just over 70,000 votes, which was slightly more than the actual empty ballots that people submitted as a protest vote. They call them the white ballots.

There was also the third party candidate from the Zov Khun Elektorat, led by the National Labor Party, and their candidate was D. Enkhbat. He received 20% of the votes cast. This was a strong showing for a political party that holds just one seat in the current parliament. And it’s important to remember that only political parties with candidates in the State Great Khural, with at least one seat were able to run in this election.

That led to an MPP candidate, the DP candidate, and the Zov Khun Elektorat candidate. In the end, the MPRP, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party did not run a candidate. This is Enkhbayar’s party, the former prime minister, and they endorsed the MPP candidate. And they officially merged back with the MPP.

As a result, we had an election that was really uncompetitive in terms of the actual campaign period and the results. A couple of notable qualities about the election, Scott mentioned this earlier, but this was the lowest turnout in a presidential election, 59%. And this was due largely to multiple variables, one being COVID-19. Cases had been surging for several weeks up until the election and even into the election, where we were seeing over 2,000 cases a day.

And this is something that Mongolia is still going through, and this likely contributed to a very low turnout and people ended up staying at home. Another thing that probably contributed to the low turnout was the fact that the major opposition party was very unenthusiastic about its candidate. 6% showing, it didn’t go very well. There was a split between the party. Most likely a lot of people from the DP stayed home, really didn’t participate in the election in the end.

And I mentioned earlier that there was just a very short campaign period. This was only a 15-day campaign period. There ended up being no debate. There was supposed to be a debate, but there was no debate in the end. And there were not many rallies or really immediate coverage of the campaign just because it was so short.

Yes, there were rallies and some of them were quite controversial because videos went viral of people crowding and gathering around candidates, but in the end, I would say, compared to other campaigns that I’ve observed in the past, this was very low key, very quiet, not many rallies. And I would say there was sort of inevitability to a degree, about this election. Khurelsukh was always the front runner. And even though the campaign was very short, he won by historic margins and he took every aimag. He took every district in UB. And if you take a look at the election map, the entire map is red, because he won every single constituency.

And just to give you an idea of this win, even in places like Sukhbataar Aimag where I served as a Peace Corp volunteer many years ago, which is traditionally a DP stronghold, and it has two members of parliament from DP, he won by an overwhelming majority, even in places like Sukhbaatar Aimag. And Scott also mentioned this, but despite these challenges, it’s important to note that international observers and domestic observers both reported that polling was well-organized and administered efficiently in transparency.

And in the end, sometimes there are claims of rigged results in Mongolian elections that did not happen this time. And again, obviously with a landslide victory, there were no claims of a rigged election. At this point, Khurelsukh is the first president to be elected to a single six-year-term, and this follows constitutional amendments in 2019, that eliminated two four-year-terms. And so, the 2019 amendments reduced the powers of the president in favor of the prime minister, and it gave the prime minister more power, diluted some of the president’s influence over judicial appointments, and the power to shape the cabinet.

But at this point, with this new six-year president and these new powers and the super majority in MPP, it’s still too early to see what kind of president Khurelsukh is going to be. Is he going to end up expanding the powers of the presidency, or is he going to really keep it in line with what the constitutional amendments had intended to do, which was to actually weaken the president in favor of the prime minister or the cabinet and even the parliament?

At the end of this, I would say, obviously it was a free and fair election, but there were definitely gaps and it was not without controversy. One of the big things that was noted from both the domestic observation and from the OSCE and international observation was just the overall lack of analytical reporting, very little discussion, substantive and objective discussions on the candidates’ electoral platforms. And again, the short campaign didn’t really help with that. But this was something that was definitely lacking was media coverage, objective media reporting.

There was also an appeal to the general election commission regarding the candidate selection process. And this is when I mentioned earlier, there were effectively two Democratic Parties, they both ended up nominating candidates. From one faction they had S. Erdene who ended up becoming the nominee, and from the other faction, you had Altankhuyag, former prime minister, current member of parliament. And he did appeal to the court of appeals when his candidacy was not accepted from the GEC, but the court rejected these complaints, and nothing ever came of it.

We mentioned earlier that the constitutional court barred incumbent President, Battulga, from being able to run. And right after that, this was right before the election, but the president then issued a decree to dissolve the Mongolian People’s Party, to dissolve an entire political party. And that ended up not going anywhere. This was a decree that was submitted to the Supreme Court, it was not accepted.

But right after that, the State Great Khural quickly approved the Constitutional Court ruling, and they ended up amending the law on presidential elections, which had been passed in December, and they took out the word re-election. At the end, the State Great Khural, which is not supposed to amend election laws in an election year, they ended up doing it after the Constitutional Court came down with that ruling in April.

At this point, just to take a step back, the MPP obviously is quite consolidated, the DP is quite divided, the Khun coalition has one seat in parliament and so has very limited powers obviously, versus, say the MPP that has 62 seats in parliament. The MPP now has a super majority in parliament, they have the president, they have the cabinet also. And so, in a way, Mongolia should be given credit for successfully organizing now three elections during this pandemic: last June, last October, and now this presidential election. But obviously more needs to be done and measures to boost transparency, promote inclusivity in politics, especially at the leadership levels where women and youth remain underrepresented and under engaged.

This will be really important work to continue to do. And also, in this new era of MPP dominance, efforts to stimulate policy debate, discourse, support for civil society to ensure that political pluralism is supported, and especially youth remain engaged in politics and governance because Mongolia, as you know, is a very young country demographically.

Just as a final plug before handing it off to my colleague from Asia Foundation, Mark, IRI and TAF are in partnership right now with our USAID funded program, Strengthening Women and Youth Engagement in the Electoral and Political Processes in Mongolia. The program is called the SWYEEPPM program, and we’re working together on a lot of these issues, supporting the media, supporting civil society, supporting voter education.

And a lot of our work had focused on the pre-election environment before the parliamentary elections around the local elections, and now obviously with the presidential elections. And we’ll continue to work together under the SWYEEPPM program now in our post-election period. And there’s plenty of work to be done, and I’m happy to take questions. I’ll hand it over to Mark.

Mark Koenig:

Thanks, Craig, on a really great overview. Rather than repeating too much, I’m going to try and build out a couple of the narratives that the crowd may find a bit interesting. Briefly, I’m Mark Koenig from the Asia Foundation, our country representative, and we’re working with IRI on the CEPPS-funded SWYEEPPM project. And we certainly watched this election with a lot of interest. Historically we’ve often talked about presidential elections in Mongolia as swinging back against the party that won the previous parliamentary elections.

There’s this one year gap, and traditionally we’ve seen a swing towards the party who had the worst performance in the parliamentary elections. We’ve interpreted this historically as Mongolian voters seeing desirability in checks and balances, and wanting some balance in government. But we’re also seeing evidence this time around that makes us think that candidates really matter in Mongolia, especially in the presidential elections. And we should really point out that President Khurelsukh was a very strong candidate. Sometimes it doesn’t always transfer across cultures, but he has a certain charisma. He’s proven to be a very clever politician at different points in his career, and he has led some effort at refreshing of the MPP party that has proven to be quite effective.

They have introduced a lot of younger, more technocratic faces over the last year, starting with the prime minister himself, and a range of people around them. They were all the only party that had a really concerted effort to create a youth platform in their party platform, and they had a social media game to go along with their traditionally strong, get out the vote ground game in the aimags, that shows quite a lot of evolution.

Now, one of the concerns is that evolution is coming from such a position of strength that they have a lot more resources, a lot more space to build out the party, to bring in new faces, and that it really creates a situation where the MPP is lapping the field a bit. And that is at the same time coupled with the historic weakness of the Democratic Party. And the DP has always been known for being somewhat fractured, this interesting alliance of forces that has broken apart and been put back together at different times, but at no point has that fracture been as contentious and as reliant on the court system to help resolve its own internal negotiations.

And in some ways, the DP, over the last six months kind of lost control of the power to even resolve the internal dispute themselves. And that raises a lot of questions about the role that the courts and bodies like the General Election Commission play in resolving, or in the end not resolving, these internal party disputes. There of course, was speculation about some interference. It’s very hard to say what did and didn’t happen, because a lot of the legal decisions that were made along the way were fairly obscure administrative decisions about party seals and rules, that even among legal experts are really challenging to work out what the appropriate decision may have been.

And I think the Constitutional Court decision on President Battulga, I think what made it controversial is not the legal analysis itself, but the fact that when the constitutional amendments were made, there was some sort of understanding there had been a handshake deal, a verbal understanding that President Battulga would be allowed to run again. But it wasn’t something that was codified in an illegal way. And so, there was always this opening for a court case to be brought, to challenge the idea that he could be a candidate.

It’s a really messy muddled story that involves both these really incredible fractures in the Democratic Party, and historic strength of the MPP. And the MPP, to its credit, has done quite a lot to modernize itself. And again, I have to repeat myself, the social media strategy and activity of the MPP this time was something that we hadn’t seen from them in the past. I think, specifically on the performance of Mr. Enkhbat and the Labor Party, what we’re seeing also is perhaps the limits of this very short campaign period for these smaller parties to break through.

Mr. Enkhbat was a strong candidate and he had, again, quite a savvy social media strategy, and a very positive message that was trying to appeal to urban younger voters. And a 20% performance, in some ways, would be quite good for a candidate that didn’t have much name recognition outside of UB, going into this election period. But in a two-week election campaign period, it’s very hard to build up that name in a way that you’d need to, to reach out to a wider group of voters.

And the fact that he did test positive for COVID-19 in the last days of the campaign. And that led to the cancellation of the one TV debate that was going to be a chance for him to show himself to many of the Mongolians who were not familiar with him, was potentially an unfortunate turn of events that lost him a last chance to make up a bit more ground. It really was an election where everything fell into place for the MPP and President Khurelsukh.

It also should be noted that the negotiation to merge with the MPRP was, again, a very politically savvy decision. It really took out the right flank for Mr. Khurelsukh, where he took care of the more nationalists traditional voters who often support the MPRP, and could focus some of the campaigning away towards some of this middle ground, some of the urban voters and other pieces. Again, another show of great strength, and the MPP being so dominant, had a lot to offer the MPRP in a negotiation to merge the parties back together.

And we’ll see over the next few months what they offered and whether they come through on the deals that were made, whether involves the parliamentary by elections or whether it involves cabinet positions, but by having all this power, they have the ability to bring in more actors into the fold of the MPP party. And I think we come out of this with an MPP that’s so big, that in many ways it’s the most diverse it’s been, in terms of representing different opinions, different types of individuals, different actors that will create an interesting dynamic going into this period of governing.

Now for the next three years until the next parliamentary elections, the MPP has a clear opportunity to put its policy vision into practice, if they can be united and actually get some of the technical work done. But because the party has grown so broad, it’ll be quite interesting to see how all those pieces fit together. And I think there are real different ideas about what to do on even things like foreign direct investment.

You have quite a pro FDI prime minister, and you have a president now who ran on a platform that involved a lot of, not outright, but a lot of insinuations of resource nationalism. His party tagline was, Mongolia’s wealth for Mongolians more or less. And so, you have some interesting dynamics at play, there. There are, of course, going to be concerns that having so much power accumulated in one party does raise questions about how they will choose to wheel that power.

And I think the checks and balances that the presidency put into place over the last few years, were fairly limited from a legal standpoint. The president would often veto things, but the parliament could overrule that veto. But there was a certain symbolic check and balance. And also, you had the president sitting on the national security council, which will now be united as well. I think there are concerns that there is a situation where power could be abused or overstepped, but it’s not necessarily a non-democratic outcome.

I think the strongest candidate won and the strongest party won. And as Craig was saying, there’s been disappointment, there’s been frustration for many of those in opposition camps, but there hasn’t been the anger or the accusations that you heard maybe after the parliamentary election. And the reason I think in part was that at the parliamentary election, you had a party that won 44, 45% of the vote, getting more than 80% of the seats in parliament, a big disconnect between the level of support and the outcome.

Here, you had a popular candidate from a strong party winning an overwhelming victory, and the narrative matched. As Craig said, there was a certain feeling of inevitability. There was a bubble in UB, especially on social media where the energy around candidate Enkhbat felt stronger in the city, and a lot of people started to think, “Maybe he can pull it off, maybe he can do it.”

Because if you were an urban elite, let’s say, most of your friends on Facebook were voting Enkhbat, it seemed like. It just had that buzz in the social media world. But I think most analysts felt that this was a fairly strong positioning for Mr. Khurelsukh, and would have been a big surprise that he hadn’t won, or even if he had been pulled to a runoff.

I think finally going into the outlook going forward, I think there are big questions about how politics reshapes itself to be competitive. And big questions about whether the MPP indulges a tendency that it’s had to kind of kick the opposition parties when they’re down, let’s say. I want to say there’s anything that’s been clearly extra legal or illegal, but there have been efforts to certainly dominate the narratives in media with funding and other sources, a certain appreciation for the misery of the opposition parties and doing what they can to limit their ability to get their narrative out.

But I do think we have so much unprecedented power that it’s really important that the MPP sees this as a risk, this over concentration of power, and is a responsible actor that participates in the creation of platforms for discourse and debate around policy, and important questions that they’re going to be answering over the coming years. Where does the third party NLP and The Right Person Electorate go from here?

They’ve had a tendency to basically disappear in between elections and as Craig said, a 20% showing is something to build on, but it takes a lot of energy, a lot of fundraising, a lot of support to build on that in a non-elections year. And they do have a parliamentary by-election coming up, which will be one opportunity to try and build out their support, and build out the narrative around the party as a meaningful opposition party and potentially even the second largest opposition party, they can now say after the collapse of the DP.

The DP really is going to come down to the former President Battulga, now. He was remarkably silent during the campaign period, after being barred for running for re-election. He in no way came out and supported the DP candidate because his faction tried to put up a different candidate of the DP. And when he came out, he didn’t aggressively attack Mr. Khurelsukh. He didn’t throw any support behind Mr. Enkhbat. He was more or less silent. And he even gave an address on the eve of the election or two days before the election that some interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Mr. Khurelsukh, despite being banned from running for re-election.

He clearly is thinking about his future political or otherwise, and he remains the biggest name on the DP side. He’s not a traditional DP actor, which is why the DP has been so split. He came as basically an outsider who has become the face of the party in some ways, but we don’t have clear indication about his political future, and he is still the second most well-known, I’d say, politician after President Khurelsukh, now, and his decision will be a big part of how the DP might resolve its internal conflict, whether it splits or whether it unifies around some common platform and common candidate.

There’s some really big questions about the way the MPP is going to govern with this consolidated power, as well as how the opposition parties are going to reassess the situation and come up with a strategy to rebuild, because they’re really starting from a very low point at this point, and there’s a lot to be done to restore that competitiveness that any thriving democracy is going to need. I think best to stop there, but hopefully we’ll get some great questions and have a rich conversation around some of these themes that are emerging. But thank you for joining us today. Look forward to the discussion.

Rhonda Mays:

Great. Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Craig. We have about 25 minutes or so for some questions. We can open the floor to all of you who are joining us. If you’re able to use the raise hand function in Teams, I think that would be easiest to moderate the conversation. And then just a quick reminder that the session is being recorded. Keep that in mind as you’re asking your questions. Now the floor is open to anyone who has questions, and maybe I’ll take moderator’s prerogative and kick us off while everyone is thinking about what they want to dig into from these great presentations.

I’m curious, Craig and Mark, since our work largely focuses on engaging women and engaging young people in the political processes. How did women and young people vote in this election, in relation to the larger population? And is there such a thing in the country as a women’s vote or a youth vote? And what bearing does that have on the political situation going forward? Craig, maybe kick it to you first and then over to Mark.

Craig Castagna:

Sure, certainly. Great question, Rhonda. Basically, in terms of voting and how the women and youth votes went, I think, well, overall, obviously it was a historically low voter turnout. But if you peel it back and look at it gender wise, women actually voted in greater numbers. It’s roughly equal, but there were more women voters. But when it came to youth, there was a much lower turnout. I think the numbers that I saw 18 to 39 year olds voted at 45% turnout. Most people under the age of 40, most voters did not vote.

If you look at the older demographics, they are smaller in number. Because again, the country is just very young. However, they voted at almost double the rate. I think over 60 years of age, they were voting almost at over 70%, which was double for people under 40. I think in terms of the engagement of young people, like Mark said, there was a sense of some energy especially behind Enkhbat, and a lot of this was on social media.

But at the end, voter turnout in UB was just over 50%, maybe 51%, where most of the young people were voting. There was low turnout to begin with, and in the end, most young people decided to actually sit this one out. And again, that could be for various reasons, but I think when we look at political engagement, women obviously are very politically engaged and also probably less so represented, especially in leadership positions, in political parties, in higher office. And like the OSCE had mentioned, there was virtually no discussion of women’s issues in any of the candidate platforms.

However, women still came out and voted in pretty large numbers. In terms of the youth, it was much less so, and this is unfortunate because young people did turn out in greater numbers during the parliamentary elections in June, and we saw actually an uptick. I think this might’ve been an election where young people might not have been excited about their choices. There was only three choices obviously. And the white ballot movement also didn’t gain a lot of traction like it did in the previous elections. That’s just generally how it broke down for women and youth voter engagement.

Mark Koenig:

Just to build on that a little bit, I think, even the presentation of candidates is extremely masculine in Mongolia. Mr. Khurelsukh had some Putin-esque pictures, shirtless and horse riding, and what not. It is part of political culture, especially when you get to the president. The presentation was a little bit different for Mr. Enkhbat this time. And it was interesting to see they made an effort that I think is almost unprecedented, I want to say, in Mongolia to show his wife as a part of the elections package.

And she was out there, and she’s a very successful competent individual and she didn’t speak much, I don’t think. But they made an effort to present them as a package, which was interesting, I think, to try and appeal maybe to younger as well as women voters. But again, I don’t think we have any data that suggests that women Mongolian voters don’t respond to that same imagery of leadership that is quite masculine.

I think especially older and rural voters, male and female seem to respond these images of stereotypical strong leadership, which clearly has a gender dynamic. I think the political culture, political messaging is still somewhat masculine. We couldn’t say that not making a concerted effort to appeal to women is not necessarily a bad election strategy, given the culture and the style of leadership that is still somehow held up and idealized in Mongolia.

With the youth, I think it’s fair to say that in the parliamentary elections last year, there was a lot of energy, especially around Labor and the Right Person Electorate. And I think there may have been a little bit of frustration that didn’t get more traction in the parliamentary election. The energy didn’t lead to the results, and that added to the sense of inevitability during this presidential election, that I think maybe stunted the growth of the Enkhbat campaign a bit, that there were definitely a group of believers and people who thought he could pull it off, but I think there are a lot of others who had lived through that and come out to vote for the parliamentary elections, and had lost a bit of … I don’t know, I don’t want to say faith in system, but were frustrated by the fact that energy hadn’t translated into more parliamentary results and victories. And so, I think there was a bit of frustration that is going to take some time to mend, for sure.

But I think we saw more efforts, however, from the candidates to specifically reach out to youth, and that goes from Mr. Khurelsukh too. He cut a bunch of videos of … He used a lot of social influencers, cut some videos of skateboarders with Khurelsukh T-shirts on. They had a very clear attempt to reach out to a younger, more urban voter, that I think wasn’t there necessarily in the past.

I think you saw that this growth of the youth population, even if they’re not voting at high rates still, they were more than half of the electorate that voted, is shaping political strategies even without those voter numbers ticking up as high as many would have liked to see.

Rhonda Mays:

Great, thank you both. We can go now to the floor. Alicia, it looks like you had a hand up first. Do you still have question?


Yes, can you hear me? Thank you very much for your analysis and presentation. I actually have two related questions, and they are connected to the fact that neither of you in your presentation with the exception of maybe one sentence, talked much about the president and his possible change or continuation of the present foreign policy, which is his main function in the Mongolian system.

My first question is, in the campaign, do you believe there was foreign monies brought into the campaign, supporting any of the candidates or not? And if yes or no, why? And the same time in the campaign, you haven’t discussed money at all, beyond saying that the MPP was well-funded. The question is this, these candidates, where were they getting their funds from?

And the second part of the question is more specifically, what do you think the new President Khurelsukh’s foreign policy, including foreign economic policies will be, since some people have been concerned, he may be more influenced by his two large neighbors than other candidates, but other people have rejected that analysis? Thank you.

Craig Castagna:

Mark, do you want me to take that?

Mark Koenig:

Yeah, I’m happy to jump in after you, Craig.

Craig Castagna:

Perfect. Thank you, Alicia, great questions. A couple of things, first in terms of the campaign finance, there’s actually not a lot that we know yet, because essentially what happens is, and this was mentioned in the OSCE report, the campaign filings are submitted, but they’re later audited and they’re looked at, and I don’t think they’re really released or publicized until about a month or two after the election. We haven’t really seen the official campaign spending.

That being said, if you look at it unofficially, as Mark had mentioned, clearly the MPP had some deep pockets and resources because there were really major stars, and singers, and dancers, and musicians who were actively, I don’t want to say actively stumping, but they were making videos for the president, and they were very active on social media. Just to give you an example, one of the biggest social influencers here, his name is Battur Anguuch, he just wants the Dancing with the Stars here in Mongolia. He’s really just a very well-known social influencer.

He was actively campaigning for President Khurelsukh. There’s another hip hop group called Vandebo who are the biggest artist in Mongolia right now. Again, actively campaigning for Khurelsukh, and there was a lot of chatter online basically saying, “Obviously the social influencers are not working for free, and these musicians are not campaigning for free. It costs money.” And so, I think we haven’t really seen the official campaign filings yet, but there is a sense that clearly one party had the influencers behind it.

Whether or not that money came from abroad or how it did, again, unless Mark could add on to that, I just don’t know how we would know that. I think one of the things that even the OSCE had dinger this election on was the fact that campaign finance regulations are very weak, and there’s virtually no enforcement. You self-report your spending, and then they look at those numbers. But these numbers, first of all, they’re not really investigated or looked at, to see if they match.

For instance, the National Auditing Agency, which looks at the campaign finance reports later, they don’t do any work in the field to verify, “Are these accurate filings?” so I think we just don’t know. Again, unless Mark could add onto that. And then to your second question of just, “What will the foreign policy be?” Again, I think, it sounds like a copout, but similar to the campaign finance question.

I think we don’t know yet. Also, if you look at how they campaigned, all three candidates campaigned on supporting third neighbor policy, maintaining cordial relations with Russia and China, and also diversifying engagement with other neighbors like the U.S., and South Korea, and Japan, and other developing democracies. Even Khurelsukh did actively campaign on supporting at least the continuation of the third neighbor policy. But that being said, is there a preference for Russia or for China?

Again, I think that’s really hard to tell, but I think that even though one of the few powers that the president has is actually foreign policy, that’s one of the main things, commander-in-chief and then foreign policy. But Khurelsukh has not really come down hard on one side or another saying, “This is what my foreign policy is going to be.” I think what we heard a lot of was more focused on domestic policy, some resource nationalism, in terms of the campaign, and so what does that mean for OT and other investments?

That’s another open question, but I think in terms of the foreign policy, at least for now, it doesn’t seem like it will really depart much from Battulga, his predecessor, in terms of continuing the third neighbor policy and being okay and comfortable with Russia. And also, the MPP, Khurelsukh’s party has close ties to the CCP. They have MOUs, they have bilateral agreements. This is something that’s out in the open, it’s not secretive. And so I think at the end of the day, we will see a continuation of keeping good relations with the two close neighbors. Where possible let’s try to open up, and further diversify relations.

Mark Koenig:

I largely concur that Mr. Khurelsukh hasn’t shown a strong preference one way or the other with the two larger neighbors. I would say he hasn’t been as aggressive in courting strong relationships with some of the third neighbors. He’s formerly in favor of it, but in his political career, he has been much more domestic focused. With President Battulga, of course, we got to see it in action, whereas his close relationships with Russia were well-documented early on.

But as time went on, he proved to be really active in pursuing the third neighbor policy, and even building stronger ties with China than maybe had been initially anticipated outside of his presidency, because he had been quite aggressively anti-Chinese in his rhetoric during campaign period. This time we didn’t see as much of a narrative around foreign policy preferences. The negativity around China was less.

Four years ago, there was a very strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the election tone. It even got personal like accusing someone of having Chinese lineage was an insult that was used and insinuated at that election. And we have less clear evidence that there were … Actually, we heard more about external influence through social media and other means in the elections four years ago. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t happening, it may be just too fresh to see.

But I haven’t heard or seen as much this time. And it was a fairly muted campaign. Last time it got very negative, very aggressive, very loud, let’s say. And so, I think it was a different tone. And I think the inevitability or the feeling that this was likely to break one way, probably toned down the amount of effort that any external actor may have put into influencing it one way or the other.

I think in terms of financing, there’s certainly a lot that we don’t know. But I don’t know that a candidate would need to take the risk of foreign funding for the elections, given the dominant position of the MPP. There’s more than enough money off-the-books that can be garnered through domestic business interests and others.

I think the trend we see are these elections are becoming more and more expensive. And I think it’s fairly likely we’ll see that this is the most expensive election that we’ve had, and that’s the trend that we’ve seen over the last few elections. But as Craig says, the transparency is really lacking, and is very hard to track.

And we know from a lot of elections that cash transactions and transactions off-the-books are fairly commonplace in Mongolian elections and make it very difficult to say. I do think foreign policy is going to be again, made quite interesting going forward, because the MPP is not unified in its preferences. There are definitely members that have very close ties to China, definitely members with very strong historic ties to Russia.

And you also have quite a strong contingent who has strong relationships with Australia through study and scholarships, with the United States as well, with Japan. It’s actually the MPP itself is spread out in terms of its effort. And so I do think they are trying to balance and play third neighbor, but it does become harder and harder given the economic reliance on China, which is really incredibly overwhelming.

And Mr. Khurelsukh has supported domestic infrastructure projects that would make export to China more easy and faster especially on the resource side. It is a bit hard to say, and I do think they’re going to actively balance, but I do think it is worth noting that the Chinese economic dominance doesn’t show any signs of waning, and it does put Mr. Khurelsukh and others in a pretty difficult position at times.

Rhonda Mays:

Thank you. We’ll turn now to Jay.


Thank you, guys, for the talk, and I had two questions. First one is MPP planned to change the rules of the game, which is the election system, right before the parliamentary or presidential election for the past few elections and since the Mongolians already get used to it and then think it’s okay to have this. And what do you think about that? Why MPP keeps changing and how do you correct or how do we see it not happening, I guess? [inaudible 00:52:29] Mongolia.

Second one is more into as you said, ex-President Battulga who stayed silent during the election. And then also his PR guy is the brother of the current prime minister. There’s a definitely strong and close ties between the current president and prime minister, who is also the newly elected party leader and the ex-president. And how do you see it going forward? That’s two questions.

Mark Koenig:

Should I go first this time, Craig?

Craig Castagna:

It is fair. Sure, go for it.

Mark Koenig:

Sure. Absolutely. If you look at the parliamentary elections especially, almost every election, the system has changed within a year of the election period. And it hasn’t only been the MPP. Remember the DP did it the election before. They just were probably less effective because in some ways they changed the system in a way that led to less good results.

But yes, I think this is one of the fundamental flaws of parliamentary elections in Mongolia, just because the electoral strategies aren’t maturing. The voters don’t really have a sense of the strategy of how to vote, and how their vote is going to count. And people just don’t really understand how the votes led to the results they do. And so, it’s a major problem for a democracy and trust in the system. And how does it change? At the end of the day, it has to be a political cultural shift.

There’s not going to be another constitutional amendment. Technically the constitutional changes, banned it from happening within a certain time period of the election. It should be happening further out. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And it has to be essentially a part of the maturation of the political culture. There has to be some agreement to pick a system, and stick to it, and hold each other to that.

And whether or not the Mongolian political parties are ready to have that kind of agreement is unclear. And the system they used last year, which is kind of a mixed system with block voting seems to be the system that returns the results with the biggest variation between the number of votes and the number of seats in parliament consistently. There have been a few elections they’ve used that system and each time has led to overwhelming majorities.

And so, I think some real conversation about the system has to be heard. TAF and IRI have recently been funding some really good conversation and research about historical elections performance of different system. And I think we’re going to be talking about it in our programs and with our partners, academic political leaders and party leaders to start thinking about this earlier and hopefully have a conversation about locking in a system ahead of time and agreeing to it and hopefully not changing it.

But ultimately, it’s a political culture issue. There’s not a legal constraint that’s going to stop it right now. And the super majority in the MPP in parliament will make it very hard. And I don’t I think the public, as you say maybe have gotten used to it to some extent. It’s in the news. People note it, but it’s almost expected. And so, it doesn’t lead to outpouring of anger or anything like that, just because everybody has done it on all sides, and it’s become a part of the practice.

I agree, it’s a major issue. I don’t think there’s an easy fix. Absolutely agree that the relationship between former President Battulga and the MPP is complicated, and individuals in the MPP. Mr. Khurelsukh and Mr. Battulga have worked together on certain things in the past. They have had, seems like open lines of communication, and they have some similarities in terms of leadership style and approach.

I think that silence is quite telling that they have, in some sense more in common than Mr. Battulga had with some of those on the other wing of his own party. What exactly is going to happen? I really think it has to do with how Mr. Battulga sees his relationship with the DP, whether that’s a vehicle that interests him any further. And if he goes into trying to really build the DP into a party around him and his group, then it will necessarily require him to play a more vocal oppositional role.

If he wants to be elected to the parliament, maybe try and be an independent and caucus with the MPP at times and break. There’s a lot of options to him and he remains very popular. But I don’t have any indications yet on which path he’s going. I think he’s been fairly quiet about trying to work out his future. But it would be quite powerful in terms of populist alliance, if he did in some ways choose to be an active politician that sometimes caucused with Mr. Khurelsukh and the MPP and Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene as well.

It is an interesting relationship, but it seemed to fall out leading up to elections, because he was banned from running. But then that silence says that maybe it didn’t fall out as much as he took a pause, and now it’s being rebuilt. Craig, I don’t know if you have anything else to add, but that’s pretty fresh.

Craig Castagna:

Yeah. Just to add to the second question, because Mark pretty much covered the first one on changing the election laws ahead of time. I think in terms of Battulga, it’s important to keep in mind that the latest MEC poll that came out actually tagged him as the most popular politician in the country, he even beat out Khurelsukh. And so Khurelsukh and Battulga are clearly the two most popular politicians in the country.

And Battulga can go in different directions, because he does have popular appeal. But whether or not he’s going to actually rejoin with the DP is in question. Right now, the Ministry of Justice has drafted a draft law on the president. And according to media reports that we’ve read, there’s a possibility that it could restrict presidents or former presidents from rejoining political parties for up to five years after they’re no longer president, and from running for office, engaging in political activity, in consulting for foreign invested companies. There’s a whole host of restrictions.

Will that apply to Battulga? It’s actually not really clear. We’ve heard that since it was not passed while he was in office, it does not apply to him. Maybe he runs in the by-election, maybe he runs for parliament, perhaps he does that with the Democratic Party. But again, this is unclear at this point, in terms of what he’s going to do. But clearly, for years it seems that Battulga, then President Battulga and Prime Minister Khurelsukh have been working together on many different issues.

And it was really not until January that it seemed that they kind of had a break, and that was when Khurelsukh stepped down from his position as prime minister. And that really signaled to everyone that he was intending to run for president. Battulga also was intended to run for president. And I think that broke. At that point, Battulga had complained that the National Security Council had not met all year. They used to meet all the time, they used to even pass emergency legislations.

That has broken down. But at the end of the day, like Mark said, it would have also been surprising to see Battulga support S. Erdene, his own party candidate. He didn’t. And like we said earlier, the DP has essentially turned into two parties. Battulga could potentially have a future. He could run for parliament. He could get back involved with the party. But we’ll have to see if he’ll be able to actually do that.

You never know, they might amend the law on president and ban him from actually getting actively involved in politics for several years. That could be another similar situation to what we saw with the Constitutional Court, where there was this gentleman’s agreement that he could run, and then there was a ruling that he couldn’t. Something like that could happen.

And I think, I don’t know the exact date, but either September or October, there is going to be a by-election for Sumyaabazar’s seat. And it’s possible that he could run. He could get back with the DP and maybe the DP just splits into two different parties. I think at this point anything is really possible and he has remained really silent since April. And even now he’s been quiet. We’ll have to just wait and see. Is he going to come out of the shadows post-election and start to rally people?

Rhonda Mays:

Thank you both. All right. I don’t see any more hands right now and we’re just a bit over time. I think we’ll go ahead and wrap up, unless anyone has a last burning question that they want to squeeze in here at the end. I want to thank Craig and Mark, for staying up late, and sharing all of their insights with us. Clearly there’s a lot that just happened in this election and a lot to keep an eye on going forward. It looks like Jay, did you have another question, quickly?


Yeah, sorry. Thank you for the responses. The third question I had was, there’s a rumor that DP candidate who got to receive like seven billion MNT from MPP. Do you have any thoughts on that since he didn’t spend any of it?

Mark Koenig:

I think you can’t rule anything out, but the fight within the DP extends back pretty far. And Mr. Erdene has been at every effort fighting against President Battulga and his wing of the party. I don’t know whether Mr. Erdene would have needed that incentive to oppose President Battulga within the party that schism was already there, but I would say that he has a history of some unethical behaviors. I’m not going to say I have any evidence that rules out that possibility.

But I think the schism within the DP was real and existed before a lot of these actions happened, and some DP insiders have said that they really did feel like to build the party back. They had to tear it down and rebuild. I don’t think that’s something that’s ever going to be proven, and I feel like the split in the DP was real, regardless of whether the MPP stoked the fire a bit, which I suspect they did as they were seeking any advantage they could.

But whether it came out to direct payments and things like that, I couldn’t do anything more than speculate, and I don’t think that would be fair to do. That he didn’t spend much in his campaign and tried to conserve his money, I think what I saw, I would agree with that. The campaign was not particularly active, was not very visible, and it didn’t seem like they were running to win at any point. It was a pretty low energy, probably low-cost campaign, from what I saw.

Craig Castagna:

And just one quick thing to add to that is just the fact, the way that S. Erdene campaigned was quite odd. He spent almost as much time attacking Battulga, a person from his own party, that he did attacking Khurelsukh. So it seemed, I remember just coming across articles on, where he was saying, “Battulga’s trying to destroy democracy. Battulga is trying to rip apart the Democratic Party.”

It’s a very odd message when you’re not running against Battulga, and you’re running against Khurelsukh. We can only speculate. I haven’t seen any evidence of this, but the way that S. Erdene did campaign was very odd, and I think that only stoked conspiracy theories even more and questions about, “Is he working for the MPP?” Because he was essentially attacking people from his own party.

Rhonda Mays:

Okay. Thanks again, both. We’re going to leave it there since we’re now well over time. I want to, again, thank Craig and Mark, and thank all of you for joining us today. As I said, there’s clearly a lot going on in Mongolia, and a lot to keep an eye on going forward as they navigate this new phase in their democratic development.

We, at IRI and I’m sure our friends at TAF as well, are really looking forward to working with our Mongolian friends and partners as they continue to work on strengthening their democracy there. Thank you everyone and have a really good day.

Craig Castagna:

Thank you.

Mark Koenig:


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