Suspicions of a fraudulent election, combined with rampant inflation, low living standards and perceptions of widespread corruption have combined to create a perfect storm of protest in Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, where in the evening of July 1 a crowd estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 took to the streets, torching buildings and cars and engaging in violent skirmishes with the gendarmerie. By the time the violence began to abate four hours later, the state-owned Montsame news agency reported that five people had died during the disturbances and 300 were injured, among them 97 policemen, and that more than 700 demonstrators had been detained. Mongolian reporters and a Japanese correspondent were also injured in the fracas, while the “majority of the instigators of the riot were in a state of alcoholic intoxication” (Montsame, July 2-3, 2008).
The flashpoint, which ignited the frustrations of Ulan Bator’s residents, was the June 29 election for 76 seats in the Ulsyn Ikh Khural (State Great Hural, or parliament). The Mongol Ardyn Khuv’sgalt Nam (Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, MPRP), the former Communist Party, of which President Nambaryn Enkhbayar is a member, claimed victory, although the General Election Committee has yet to make a formal announcement on the balloting.
The Ardchilsan Nam (Democratic Party, or DP) immediately decried the results as fraudulent. DP leader Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj said on the eve of the election that his party expected to receive at least 40 parliamentary positions (www.theglobalist.com July 2). After the preliminary results were announced, Elbegdorj commented, “From the Sea of Japan to the eastern border of Europe, we are the only functioning democracy and we have a duty to save it”(Reuters, July 2, 2008).
The government should have seen it coming. In April 20,000 Mongolians demonstrated in Ulaanbaatar over soaring food costs as rising inflation ravages a country of 2.7 million, with the CIA estimating that more that 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line with an annual per capita income of $2,900. The World Bank determined that while in 2007 Mongolia’s real GDP grew by 9.9 percent, inflation soared to a decade-high level of 15.1 percent, driven by rapid monetary growth, public sector wage increases and soaring price increase on food and fuel imports (www.worldbank.org). Mongolian politicians running for office should have expected to explain to the electorate why the price of bread increased 50 percent in April alone, while the cost of a 55-pound bag of flour tripled.
Mongolian television channels broadcast live footage of the disturbances throughout the night until President Nambaryn Enkhbayar announced a four-day state of emergency. After Enkhbayar’s proclamation, all of Mongolia’s 456 television broadcast station channels, provincial and low-power repeaters went off the air, except those transmitting the state-run Mongolyn Undesnii Televis, or Mongolian National Broadcaster (MNB) (“Field Listing – Television broadcast stations,” www.cia.gov; Montsame, July 2).
Roiling the opposition was the fact that up to two days before the June 29 elections all opinion polls showed both parties having an identical number of supporters (Kommersant, July 3).
At the core of the political wrangling is the rivalry between the MPRP, which ruled Mongolia as the Communist Party from until 1996, when the DP bested it in elections. In the 2004 general election, the MPRP and the Democrats nearly split the vote, forging a coalition that produced three different prime ministers in four years.
The unrest caught the authorities by surprise; only 23 of 76 parliamentarians were in the capital, while Minister of Defense Jamyandorj Batkhuyag was in Irkutsk (Itar-Tass, July 2).
Prime Minister Sanjagiin Bayar spoke on the private Iigl television channel from inside the MPRP headquarters in central Ulan Bator, urging restraint and dialogue, saying, “The other party (the DP) is accusing us of buying the election. It’s not true. The election was free and fair. We now request that everyone stop this chaotic protest immediately” (Iigl Televiz, July 1). Demonstrators subsequently torched the building.
Russia ascribed the disturbances to Mongolians being inspired by earlier “color” revolutions in the former Soviet bloc. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov observed during a press conference in Ankara, “Any questions raised by the opposition must be solved in accordance with constitutional procedures, not in the streets. Everyone was motivated by the sad experience of the so-called ‘color revolutions.’ These revolutionary crusades have to be worked and completed on the basis of the supremacy of law” (Vesti, July 2).
The Mongolian embassy in Washington hastened to assure visitors to its website that “the situation in Mongolia is under control and the Government Emergency Response Team has been established, headed by the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs”(www.mongolianembassy.us).
On July 2 General Election Committee head B. Battulga presented the initial results of the balloting even as he emphasized that the results were only preliminary, stating that MPRP candidates had won 48 seats in Parliament and DP candidates 25 seats, with the remaining three going to small parties and an independent candidate, Zorigiin Altai (Montsame, July 2).
In appealing for calm on national television Enkhbayar recognized voter complaints about irregularities and promised an investigation into any irregularities, implicitly acknowledging that the opposition’s charges might have some merit by telling his audience, “Let’s sit down and solve the election fraud,” adding that if an investigation uncovered wide-scale manipulation of the vote, a new election should be held (Mongolyn Undesnii Televis, July 2).
The government is playing for time, with the Central Electoral Commission yet to make public the definitive results from the June 29 poll, blaming the delay on vote-counting difficulties under the new electoral system.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the polling, a majority of parliamentary seats would have allowed the MPRP to rule without forming a coalition government with the DP, an experience that it has found during the last four years distinctly not to its liking. At stake is the economic future of the country, as the government forges after months of deliberations definitive amendments to Mongolia’s Mineral Law in a bid to clarify the country’s investment structure for interested foreign concerns. Among Mongolia’s vast reserves of minerals are copper, coal, gold, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin, and tungsten deposits, which Ulan Bator lacks the fiscal and technical reserves to develop. Among nations interested in the ores are Russia, which already supplies 90 percent of Mongolia’s fuel needs and China, which absorbs 70 percent of Mongolia’s exports. Besides Russia’s Rosatom, U.S., Japanese, Canadian, Kazakh and French companies have all expressed interest in developing Mongolia’s uranium reserves.
The country’s mineralogical resources became an element during the campaign, with the DP promising each Mongolian a one-million-togrog ($884) “share of treasure,” with the ruling MPRP subsequently promising that each Mongolian would receive from the “country’s profit” 1.5 million togrogs ($1,296) grant (Olloo News Agency, June 26).
Ulan Bator is now quiet. On July 5 the government lifted the state of emergency, released all but one of 728 detainees and lifted restrictions on radio and television (Montsame, July 5, 2008).
Whether the calm will continue is entirely up to future government actions. With such an economic prize at stake, it is hardly surprising that the MPRP might be tempted to engage in a bit of electoral sleight of hand to ensure its control of the largesse to flow from foreign investment. If the electoral impasse is not amicably and fairly resolved, however, then MPRP parliamentarians might as well get used to the intermittent Molotov cocktail getting lobbed into the party’s headquarters.