INASIA

Insights and Analysis

Mongolia’s Lessons on Democracy during a Pandemic

June 24, 2020

By Mark Koenig

Mongolia is holding parliamentary elections today after a remarkable 2020 campaign season, unique for the significant participation of new parties and independent candidates and markedly changed by the Covid-19 pandemic. As election day, June 24, approached, everywhere there were signs that this year is different: the prime minister campaigning in a protective face shield, campaign rallies with attendees sitting in chairs spaced two meters apart, campaign outreach built on online promotion and social media “influencers.” Each of these innovations points to a democratic process that is adjusting to the realities of the pandemic as they emerge. The effect of these adjustments on the electoral process will be an important subject for future analysis.

Mongolia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely successful at preventing the spread of the virus. By acting early and decisively, Mongolia has been one of the few countries in the world with no proven local transmission of Covid-19, and it has recorded fewer than 200 cases overall. That decisive action, of course, has involved major restrictions on everyday life and daily sacrifices by Mongolian citizens. As in many countries around the world, the Mongolian people, as individuals, families, organizations, and institutions, have adjusted to these restrictions with strength, resilience, creativity, and ingenuity.

Some of the most interesting innovations have been in the realm of governance, where The Asia Foundation has been actively supporting, observing, and learning from Mongolia’s experiments. The Municipality of Ulaanbaatar has been stepping up the deployment of online engagement tools, including a mobile app allowing citizens to vote directly on local infrastructure investments. This system, which replaced a system of paper-based surveys, allowed more than 400,000 citizens to place their votes for civic improvements in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The opening, plenary session of Mongolia’s first virtual parliament. Distributed among various government buildings, and united by video screens, MPs were seated at least 1.5 meters apart.  

The Mongolian Great State Khural, the nation’s parliament, also radically altered its procedures to allow its spring session to proceed. Safely convening the national parliament was crucial for several reasons. First, it continued the Mongolian government’s wide-ranging efforts to model safe behaviors and reinforce the message that masks and social distancing are essential and effective. Second, it allowed the parliament, at a critical moment, to craft legislation to respond to the pandemic. Finally, it ensured that the pandemic did not interrupt Mongolia’s thriving democratic tradition.

With the new procedures firmly in place, MPs were physically present in the parliament but distributed among different chambers to allow 1.5 meters space between each occupied desk. A video conferencing system connected the chambers and allowed for outside speakers and observers. Votes were taken both by show of hands and by text message using purpose-built meeting software. This ambitious new system required procedural changes, astute investments in IT, and a range of new policies for routine matters like media access. The Asia Foundation and Global Partners Governance (GPG) hosted an online, “virtual parliament” workshop with representatives of the Mongolian parliament at the start of this experimental session, both to learn from their planning and to share some emerging best practices for the parliament to consider. The contents of this discussion formed the basis of a brief paper by the Foundation and GPG laying out some key concepts and considerations for virtual parliaments.

The head of the Constitutional Court, directors of legislative agencies, and the heads of diplomatic missions to Mongolia attend a session of the virtual parliament.

The June 24 parliamentary elections will be another example of adapting the functions of government to the realities of the pandemic. Some voices called for a postponement of the elections, concerned that proceeding would undercut the nation’s posture of vigilance in the face of the pandemic. But the example of South Korea’s successful elections earlier this year, the absence of any confirmed local transmission in Mongolia, and public support for the government’s handling of the pandemic so far all convinced decision-makers to go ahead.

Campaigning has been somewhat muted without the usual large, raucous crowds, but online campaign materials have proliferated. Election Day will also be different: at this writing it’s an open question whether turnout will be affected by lingering concerns about gathering in public places.

There will be changes at polling stations. Social distancing will be enforced, which may create longer lines and delays. Temperature checks will be required at polling stations, which could prevent some voters from casting their ballots. International observers won’t be there, due to travel restrictions and quarantine rules for international arrivals.

How these unique circumstances affect the elections and Mongolia’s immediate political future will merit study and analysis in the days to come. The possibility of low turnout or voter disenfranchisement should not be ignored. But the available evidence suggests that Mongolians are successfully adapting their democratic practices to the unique challenges of the coronavirus era.

Mark Koenig is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia. He can be reached at mark.koenig@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Covid-19

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