Asia’s Quiet Democracy
CIPE Development Blog
By Tina Mufford

Mongolia is Asia’s quiet democracy, a stable democratic country with a history of democratic progression two decades in the making and with few setbacks to speak of.  In fact, in December 2009, Mongolia celebrated the 20th anniversary of its democratic revolution.  In October, the country marks the same anniversary for it parliament, the State Great Hural.  Yet even with its strong commitment to democracy, we should not overlook the need to question the quality of Mongolia’s democracy.  While democracy in Mongolia may be “the only game in town”, the question remains whether it is able to deliver, meet expectations and sustain levels of internal support that help it resist the influence of less democratic surroundings.

Landlocked between Russia and China, Mongolia is no stranger to the pressures of neighboring political systems and attractive foreign markets.  These potentially destabilizing forces become even more acute when paired with the country’s extensive unemployment, poverty, corruption and inflation.  Unrealistic campaign promises stemming from the 2008 parliamentary elections, questionable legislative changes to the election law and a highly centralized governing authority all point to systemic institutional shortcomings which pose serious threats to the integrity of democracy in Mongolia.  

Elections may be the recurrent measure by which to gauge this integrity – or lack thereof – around the world, but it is the governing in-between elections that truly tells us how a democracy will fare.  If elected officials are able to meet the needs of citizens in a transparent and efficient manner, the elections that return them to office are a referendum on such responsiveness.  In Mongolia, control of government has changed hand numerous times between the two main parties.  Though marred by the recent memory of unprecedented violence following the 2008 parliamentary elections, these turnovers have occurred relatively peacefully and without subverting the rule of law largely because the parties have recognized that by running on their records and making a good case to voters, they can return to office.  But what does this tell us about the overall satisfaction of Mongolians with the current system?  Are they happy with the progress being made, content with the opportunities to access their representatives?  According to a May 2008 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), only 35 percent of respondents were satisfied with their representation in the national parliament, with only slightly more – 39 percent – who believed such representation was effective.  

The presence of such a gap between those who govern and the governed means there could be no better time for redoubling efforts on good governance in Mongolia.  The country is at a critical juncture with its mining projections – the resource boom will hit a few years from now, leaving time to plan in advance to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a typical rentier state that absconds from any meaningful accountability to its citizens.  If not planned for appropriately, rapid resource development can have a negative impact on democracy (e.g. see the growth of non-fuel mineral wealth in countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).  The strengthening of governing institutions is critical in preventing such a downward spiral.

Improved governance is how Mongolia can not only avoid a backlash in its revenue surge but also how it can take its democracy to the next level.  With an 18-year history working in Mongolia, IRI is poised to assist in these efforts.  In the last five years, IRI has worked with State Great Hural and parliamentary district staff in developing and strengthening accountable and transparent governance practices and institutions.  More recently, this work has carried over into several provincial areas, with a focus on enhancing constituent outreach throughout all levels of government.  

What little local level authority exists in Mongolia will be impaired further once the mining revenue streams in and these officials (and subsequently, their constituents) are left out of the process.  Decentralizing power to these lower levels will not only improve the chances of this revenue filtering to the local level but will also develop more and better connections between citizens and their representatives.  Fortunately, parties and government representatives recognize this need to become focused on connecting with citizens.  Likewise, IRI’s work in creating bridges between constituent groups, political parties, local governments and the national parliament will facilitate the kind of two-way interactions critical in any well-functioning democracy.  

Mongolia already stands as a hallmark of democracy in Asia, but the challenges that lie ahead will test the country’s aptitude in governance.  We would all be wise to take notice and continue supporting its ongoing commitment to democracy.

Tina Mufford is deputy director for Asia programs at the International Republican Institute.

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