Mongolia's Giant Steppe for Democracy

July 9, 2004
The Wall Street Journal Asia

Democracy in Asia has been full of irony of late. Last week, up to half a million people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest China's decision that one of the world's most modern cities is still not ready for democracy. Meanwhile the predominantly pastoral population of formerly Communist Mongolia reveled in their democratic freedoms by voting in the country's eighth general election since 1990.

The surprisingly strong performance by a coalition of democratic candidates in Mongolia's June 27 polls was not just another milestone for democracy in the vast steppes of that sparsely populated nation of nomadic herders. It also showed how -- not withstanding Beijing's attempts to pretend otherwise -- democracy can rapidly take root in even the most traditional of Asian societies.

In 1996, a year before the Hong Kong handover, Mongolia's young, inexperienced Western-oriented Motherland Democratic Coalition (MDC) won a governing majority from the former communist party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Four years later the coalition lost virtually all its seats to the former ruling communists in the 2000 polls, despite scoring a respectable 46-47% of the vote.

At the time, the democrats were blamed for the country's poor economic performance and their image suffered from internal bickering, although legislative deadlock inspired by the MPRP did little to help.

The old line MPRP socialists approached the 2004 elections with promises of generous government subsidies to unemployed heads of household and an $80 cash gift to all newborns. The MPRP spent most of the country's foreign exchange reserves paying off a $250 million Soviet-era debt to Russia (thereby gaining a slightly more respectable sovereign debt rating from Standard and Poor's) and encouraged new foreign investment in the Central Asian nation's mineral wealth.

The democratic coalition had its own message for the masses. Downplaying the free-market policies they'd pursued while in power, they too campaigned on a platform of social-welfare payouts -- promising every family with children would receive a monthly stipend of 10,000 tugriks ($8.50) per child.

Nonetheless with Mongolia's economy on the rebound, recording gross domestic product growth of 5.5% last year, many outside observers expected the MPRP to retain its huge majority in the Great Hural, Mongolia's parliament, where it held 72 out of the 76 seats prior to June 27 polls.

But the observers were wrong. Rural voters complained of frustration with poverty; small and mid-sized businesses complained that MPRP policies favored only large state enterprises; and everyone complained about the MPRP's lavish campaign spending which reminded them of the bad old days of one-party elections. The result was that the MPRP lost half its seats while the rival coalition gained at least 30, leaving the opposing camps with 36 seats each, and the remaining four in the hands of independent legislators expected to side with the democrats. That leaves the outcome in limbo, since neither side has the 39 seats necessary to form a government.

As in many long-established democracies, there were claims of irregularities and demands for recounts, which are currently the cause of court action. But whatever the final outcome, the fact that 77% of Mongol voters were able to vote in an open election -- with the majority choosing to cast their ballots against a ruling party which controlled up to 90% of the campaign advertising -- is startling proof that democracy has taken hold in one of Asia's most ancient and traditional cultures.

Regardless of which party eventually forms the next government, the continued success of Mongolia's democracy is good news for the U.S., since the country is one of America's most important friends in Central Asia. Mongolia is on its third rotation of a 130-man peacekeeping team in Iraq, which U.S. marine officers describe as "man-for-man a value-added partner" in the country. In February, a Mongolian sergeant shot and killed a suicide bomber outside the Multinational Division barracks in al-Hillah, just south of Baghdad. Last month Mongol troopers defused a terrorist explosive intended for U.S. Marines.

Despite pressure from both China and Russia to distance itself from the U.S., Mongolia remains a staunch ally. And Bush administration officials have long seen the country's maturing democratic culture, its popular elections and movement toward free markets as an example for the rest of Central Asia -- a region not known for its surfeit of democracies -- to follow.

Next week, U.S. President George W. Bush will welcome Mongolian President Natsagiyn Bagabandi to Washington and reaffirm American support for Central Asia's most vibrant democracy. This week, President Bagabandi has been visiting Beijing. Perhaps he could use the opportunity to explain the benefits that democracy has brought to his country, and so undermine the rationale of Chinese leaders for continuing to deny it to Hong Kong.


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