Last month, on July 11, 2017, a new President of Mongolia was sworn into office following a second round run-off election held on July 7. After losing his parliamentary seat by just a few hundred votes in last year’s general elections Khaltmaa Battulga, a former member of parliament from the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) has been elected Mongolia’s new President. This has been the first-ever presidential runoff election described as a highly competitive contest in which Battulga defeated his left-wing rival Enkhbold Miyegombo, the leader of the governing Mongolian People’s Party (MPP).
Battulga, a former Judo star and a businessman, emerged victorious by gaining over 50% of the votes polled, while the MPP candidate Enkhbold managed to get only a little over 41% of the votes in a voter turn-out of roughly 61%. A key feature of the election was a record number of protest votes with over 8% of the registered voters casting blank ballots. Casting blank ballots is the newest practice following adoption of the Election Law of 2015. If blank ballots had reached to a figure of 10%, it would have quashed the entire election. According to the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), “the election was competitive and well-organised with the freedoms of assembly and expression generally respected”.
Analysts give the credit of Battulga’s win to his campaign message of “Mongolia First” policy on the line of the U.S. President Donald Trump’s election message “America First” that appealed to the youths who constitute a sizeable number of Mongolia’s population. More than half of the country’s estimated population of 3 million is under the age of 30. Majority of youth population trust in democracy and support it, yet they believe that system of government needs major changes. Battulga’s victory reinforces the youth’s confidence in democracy as the right-wing reappeared on the country’s topmost post.
This was the seventh Presidential election since Mongolia’s transition to democracy in 1990 and Battulga is the fifth President who has succeeded the outgoing President Ts. Elbegdorj who also belongs to Democratic Party completing his second term in office. Battulga’s win will continue the previous setting of parliament with a Democratic Party President serving alongside parliamentarians dominated by the MPP. It may be recalled that the MPP won a landslide victory in 2016 Parliamentary elections after campaigning dominated by concern over slowing economic growth since 2012 when DP was ruling the country. The ADB data shows that economic growth saw a sharp decline to reach just 1.0 percent in 2016 compared to the figure of 17.5 percent in 2011 when Mongolia was considered to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
The current 76-member parliament has 65 members from the MPP, which has governed for most years since the 1921 revolution in Mongolia. The Democratic Party has just nine members in addition to one member from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and one independent. The MPP’s victory over the ruling DP in 2016 parliamentary elections was regarded as the success in attracting foreign investors, especially in the mining sector which could help recover Mongolian economy. But the reality has it that the country faces severe economic recession which provided an extra edge to Battulga to campaign against his rival MPP in the presidential election. The MPP’s debacle in 2017 Presidential elections is a setback for consolidating its hold on power as status quo will not be same and major policy changes may be expected at a time of economic suffering.
Mongolia is a semi-presidential democracy where government is run by a prime minister, but the president has the power to veto legislation. This further adds to the importance of the president’s role when Mongolia is looking for strengthening its post-Soviet image of having a robust democratic credential at home and abroad. What is likely to happen is that despite the MPP’s dominance in parliament the new president sitting at the top would like to exercise his power to put veto on any proposed legislation if it does not suit to his image he projected during the election campaign.
Like Elbegdorj, under whose Presidentship Mongolia was able to rely on its reputation as an “oasis” of democracy in a complex neighborhood to maintain its international visibility and key foreign relationships, Battulga will also have to ensure that Ulaanbaatar must uphold that reputation. He will primarily be responsible for country’s security and foreign policy and hence negotiations on treaties and agreements with foreign powers are vested in him. Since his election manifesto promised “a patriotic president” seeking “equal cooperation” with Mongolia’s immediate neighbours – Russia and China, his main task in foreign affairs will continue to be making efforts to balance these two neighbours, while at the same time strengthening relations with the “third neighbours”, particularly the USA, Japan and India.
India finds Battulga’s victory as an opportunity for further strengthening bilateral ties which are based on historic-cultural ties and democratic principles that the two countries pursue. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mongolia in May 2015 the two countries went further ahead and signed a “Strategic Partnership” agreement which is being seen as an important factor of India’s “Act East” policy. Now that the Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry for winning the support of small and middle powers has amplified, Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to the new Mongolian President to visit India is a wise diplomatic move which may have significant impact on international relations in not only in East Asia but also in South Asia.
Indeed the election result shows that a country like Mongolia stands out as a unique case where in the ultimate exercise of democracy voters have given their mandate for the country’s topmost post to a candidate who has absolutely no backing in the parliament. But, for sure, it reinforces confidence in democracy as the new president will act as a necessary balance against the MPP dominated parliament.