Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Mongolia’s Ruling Party Keeps Big Majority After Covid-19 Success

Mongolia’s ruling party retained a supermajority after parliamentary elections, as the government’s relative success against the coronavirus outbreak offset concerns about corruption and the erosion of democratic institutions.

The Mongolian People’s Party appeared poised to secure at least 62 of the 76 seats in the Great State Khural, according to preliminary results released Thursday by the General Election Commission in Ulaanbaatar. The result reaffirms Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa’s grip on power, representing a loss of only one seat in parliament.

The main opposition Democratic Party — led by former Prime Minister Amarjargal Rinchinnyam — won 11 seats, while independents and coalition groups secured three others. More than 600 candidates competed in the election Wednesday, the first since the MPP’s landslide win four years ago.

Khurelsukh UkhnaaPhotographer: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

“The MPP fully capitalized on the Covid-19 regime in the country,” said Suren Badral, a former ambassador-at-large and foreign policy adviser to Amarjargal. For example, the ruling party was able to leverage support from teachers, who had more free time due to school closures, he said.

The result could mean more strains between Mongolia and the Rio Tinto Group over their joint Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi Desert. Disputes include tax issues, criticism of the terms of the mining agreement and questions about the project’s power requirements.

“Mongolia’s relationship with Rio Tinto will continue to be ‘rocky,’” said Thomas Hugger, a fund manager at Asia Frontier Capital in Hong Kong.

Voting didn’t appear affected by the pandemic, with turnout at 68% nationwide and in line with past elections in Mongolia. The result was the latest — after parliamentary elections in nearby South Korea in April — to suggest that infection-control measures like glove and mask requirements might not have a big impact on voter participation.

Since taking the premier’s post in 2017, Khurelsukh, 52, has strengthened his political position through unlikely cooperation with President Battulga Khaltmaa, 57, of the rival DP. They pushed through a series of legislative changes last year including the removal of measures intended to protect the independence of the courts and anti-corruption investigators. Khurelsukh also secured new powers to select cabinet members and extended the length of the president’s term.

Corruption, Coronavirus

The shift has fueled concerns that Mongolia’s status as an “oasis of democracy” between Russia and China may be under threat three decades after the country’s first open election in 1990. Authorities took the unprecedented step in recent weeks of arresting five candidates, including three from the DP and two members of the MPP.

The MPP managed to not only overcome that criticism, but also the fallout from a Covid-driven economic downturn. A short-term ban on sending coal to China in February sent exports sliding 38.5% in the first five months of the year, and Mongolia reported a 10.7% economic contraction for the first quarter.

“The MPP has won public support, a clean reputation and a strong homeland,” Amarbayasgalan Dashzeveg, the ruling party’s secretary general, said after the result was confirmed.

Mongolia has managed to keep its coronavirus cases low by closing its borders, banning public gatherings and establishing curfews on restaurants and pubs, giving Khurelsukh a boost. The country had confirmed 216 cases and no deaths as of Thursday.

Still, Camille Barras, a politics and international studies researcher at the University of Cambridge who previously observed local governance in Mongolia for the United Nations Development Program, said the results will disappoint those seeking an alternative to the two main parties. Some 121 independent candidates and 4 coalitions of smaller parties had sought seats in the election.

“It is quite palpable how the election results might also feed into further political disillusionment of part of the electorate,” Barras said.

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