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In Mongolia, an Incumbent Vies with First Woman Candidate and a Former Wrestler for Presidency

June 26, 2013

Mongolians headed to the polls on June 26 to cast their ballots in the country’s sixth presidential election. With the election results being announced the day after, anticipation is high on whether the current president, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, candidate for the Democratic Party (DP), will remain in power or whether one of the two other official presidential candidates will take over.

Mongolia ger district

Mongolians headed to the polls on June 26 to cast their ballots in the country’s sixth presidential election. The winning candidate will become the leader of one of the world’s fastest growing economies, dominated by a booming mining industry, and a vibrant democracy fighting inequality and corruption.

According to the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE)’s Election Observation Mission, the first of its kind to play a role in election monitoring since Mongolia acceded to the OSCE in 2012, this year’s elections can be characterized as “active but low-key.” Whatever the result, the winning candidate will become the leader of one of the world’s fastest growing economies, dominated by a booming mining industry, and a vibrant democracy fighting inequality and corruption.

The campaign has centered around common themes of fighting corruption, the role of foreign investment in the economy, reforming the judiciary, reducing partisan influence, improving services in governance, and continuing a foreign policy of good relations with Russia and China as well as with “third neighbor countries.” While their campaign messages have touched upon similar topics, the candidates in this year’s elections couldn’t be more different.

Mr. Elbegdorj, president since 2009, has been at the forefront of the democratic movement of Mongolia. A Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate and father of more than 20 children (adopted and of his own), Mr. Elbegdorj has served as prime minister of Mongolia twice, the vice speaker of the Parliament once, the majority leader of the parliament once, and a member of parliament four times. His reelection campaign theme, “Let’s serve for Mongolia,” focused on continuing his pro-democracy, pro-foreign investment policy strategy that started under his first term as president. Mr. Elbegdorj enjoys the official backing of The Civil Will-Green Party (CWGP) and the Mongolian National Democratic Party (MNDP), two out of a total of five parties in Parliament.

Mr. Elbegdorj’s strongest opponent is Mr. Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), who enjoys strong support in the country, particularly in rural areas and his native province of Khentii. Mr. Bat-Erdene, a former professional wrestler (he won 11 times at the State Naadam Festival) and considered a critic of the controversial Oyu Tolgoi copper mining project, is a national celebrity in Mongolia. Mr. Bat-Erdene has been a member of Parliament since 2004, and held the chairmanship of the standing committee on legal affairs from 2009 to 2010. Throughout his career and campaign, he has been a staunch defender of environmental protection and an advocate for better enforcement and improvement of the legal framework for the mining industry.

The third candidate is Ms. Udval Natsag, and it’s the first time in Mongolia’s young history as a democratic country that a woman candidate is running for president.  Ms. Udval, the current Minister of Health, represents the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. In her campaign, Ms. Udval introduced her platform of “Five Policies – Five Missions” focusing on national security, national unity, national independence, the safety of citizens, and justice. Last year’s parliamentary elections increased the number of women parliamentarians from three to 13, out of a total of 76. Regardless of whether Ms. Udval wins, her candidacy signifies an important step in increasing women’s political participation in Mongolia.

The position of Mongolian president is both symbolic as well as functional in relation to the legislative, executive, and judicial affairs of the country. Thus, apart from ceremonial roles, the president also holds significant powers including the right to initiate, veto, to endorse legislative acts, to bring any policy issues to the attention of the parliament, and to give directives to the head of government in the areas of national security, foreign policy, national unity, and other related issues.

This year’s election took place within the framework of the new Law on the Election of the President adopted in December 2012, which established more restrictive rules for campaigning to ensure equal campaign opportunities for all candidates. The law restricted the amount of paid campaign commercial airtime that parties are allowed on TV to a total of one hour per day. As a result, the parties increasingly looked to social media for campaigning purposes with all three candidates using Twitter as a means to stay in touch with their followers.

As the third election within one year, following local elections in November 2012 and parliamentary elections in June 2012, voter turnout was expected to be lower than in previous elections; but according to the latest reports of the General Election Commission more than 60 percent of registered voters casted their ballot. The final election outcome will be a key determinant of Mongolia’s development for the next four years and will influence whether the country will continue its path as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Meloney C. Lindberg is The Asia Foundation’s country representative and Tirza Theunissen is the Foundation’s program and operations manager in Mongolia. They can be reached at meloney.lindberg@asiafoundation.org and tirza.theunissen@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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