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Five Critical Issues Facing Mongolia’s Fifth President

June 28, 2017

By Meloney C. Lindberg

On June 26, Mongolians went to the polls to vote for their fifth president since Mongolia’s transition to a democracy in 1990. Despite a high voter turnout of over 66 percent, the General Election Commission officially announced on Tuesday that none of the candidates had received the necessary 51 percent of the vote to declare a winner. As a result, officials have called for the country’s first-ever presidential election run-off to take place on July 7.

Mongolia election

Staff prepare ballot boxes ahead of Mongolia’s presidential election.

Mongolians directly elect their president who serves as head of state, commander-in-chief, and head of the National Security Council. Three candidates were on the ballot, representing the Democratic Party, the Mongolian People’s Party, and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Mongolia’s somewhat unique semi-parliamentary system has both a prime minister and a president who head the government. While there is clear separation of powers enshrined in the constitution, the president can introduce bills to Parliament, and has the authority to appoint judges, the prosecutor general, and the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption. The president also symbolizes the unity of the Mongolian people.

So, as the electorate gears up once again to return to the polls, what has been perceived as lacking from the campaign is what the new president is committed to addressing during his four-year term. Here are five critical issues facing the country that will no doubt confront the new president:

1. Grappling with corruption. Following a period of positive economic growth from 2011-2013, corruption has proven to be an entrenched problem that affects ordinary Mongolians on a daily basis. According to The Asia Foundation’s 2016 nationwide Survey on Perceptions of Knowledge of Corruption, 85 percent of respondents agree that “corruption is a common practice in our country.” The president can play a pivotal role in reinforcing zero tolerance toward corruption. While Mongolia’s government has developed a National Action Plan Against Corruption Strategy to 2020, it must be earnestly implemented to make a real difference. The president might consider tasking civil society to help shed light, ask questions, and present data about the progress of the government’s plan and its implementation, which could serve as a pillar of the new president’s agenda. The new president could also convene an annual review to hear from civil society organizations on their proposed solutions to help the government promote increased transparency and accountability.

2. Addressing environmental degradation. There is a common understanding in Mongolia that while a clean environment is a right of all Mongolians, it comes with important responsibilities. Several years ago, with the passage of freedom of information legislation as well as the increased focus on citizen participation in local decision-making, communities started to become more vocal about environmental issues that affected them. In nearly any community in Mongolia, citizens can tell you what pressing environmental issues affect them and what ideas they have on how to address them. However, often missing are the committed resources and technical know-how to address these problems. Furthermore, many environmental issues, such as clean water and air, are not confined to one country but are international transboundary concerns. Mongolia has created a national green development strategy as well as an urban strategy for its capital of Ulaanbaatar. Drawing on best practices from Asia and beyond, the president can be a catalyst and a convener for introducing environmental best practices from beyond Mongolia’s borders and be a positive force in the region in combatting environmental challenges. Within the president’s office, a forward-thinking, credentialed advisor to support the president to focus on environmental concerns will enable Mongolia to play a more prominent role in debating and resolving environmental issues.

3. Tackling unemployment and underemployment. Mongolia’s current unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. A steady movement away from traditional herding practices has resulted in both a loss of livelihoods and a shift of population from rural to urban settings. Women are often disproportionately affected by these strains. As Ulaanbaatar is already overstretched in its ability to provide basic public services, migration from rural communities has been halted until January 2018. Women make up 46 percent of the workforce, yet often their contributions are not seen or considered part of the formal workforce. The president can help draw critical attention to the government’s National Program on Gender Equality approved by the cabinet on April 26, 2017. The national strategy emphasizes women’s equal participation in all sectors, and this, coupled with the capital city’s action plan to increase women’s participation in SMEs, could be a strong foundation to see advancements in gender equality. Mongolia’s gender strategy also sites poor indicators for men, including alcoholism, low graduation rates, and poor health outcomes that consequently impact men’s full and meaningful participation in the economy. Addressing these long-running challenges will also be critical to addressing unemployment and a lagging economy.

4. Ensuring equitable access to justice. Mongolia prides itself on having a robust legal framework and a comprehensive set of laws. Despite this, the effective implementation of laws remains a significant hurdle. The next president will play an important role in ensuring that the Judiciary has judges that are appointed based on merit and the strength of their legal knowledge. The recent creation in 2016 of a nine-member Judicial Ethics Committee has helped to ensure that grievances from citizens are listened to and dealt with in the most appropriate and expedient manner. The president would be wise to continue to demand that key judicial reform legislation put into effect is maintained, implemented, and that there is not any backsliding on progress.

5. Enhancing Northeast Asian regional cooperation. Mongolia’s unique and positive diplomatic relations with all countries in Northeast Asia enable it to play a role in providing an open and neutral space for dialogue and opening new avenues for engagement. For example, Mongolia has been able to bring together countries in the region that might not otherwise sit together, due to regional or political differences, to discuss areas of mutual concern on the environment. The new president has a strong role in carrying forward global foreign policy aims, as Mongolia holds deep and longstanding bilateral relationships with countries not only in the region, but also through the region’s “third-neighbor” policy which brings Mongolia closer to countries beyond its direct neighbors, Russia and China.

Whoever emerges as Mongolia’s new president on July 7 will hold enormous influence at a critical time in Mongolia’s history, and how the president addresses these critical issues will decide which direction the country turns.

Editor’s note: This version has been edited to reflect the updated run-off date. 

Meloney C. Lindberg is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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