Mongolia Chooses Lesser of Two Evils in Presidential Election

The polls have closed in Mongolia and counting is underway. Opinion polls have suggested it might be a close call this time, as before. Elbegdorj has been campaigning for change against incumbent Enkhbayar, but it can be argued that actually both are part of the establishment. More than ten years ago Elbegdorj was prime minister already and has held many influential positions since, including prime minister once more. Both candidates, however, were reformers once. Elbegdorj obviously was on the front lines of the velvet, or felt, revolution in 1990 and has been hanging on to a paradigm of democratization and anti-corruption since. But people might forget that Enkhbayar actually came to power as a reformer himself. After serving as minister of culture, he reshaped the MPRP in the years the DP ruled. When he won the elections with a landslide, an English newspaper headlined: Disillusioned Mongolians turn to ‘Blair of the Steppes’.

It might have been the landslide victory that in the end sealed Enkhbayars fate as prime minister. With 72 out of 76 seats in parliament even a reformed MPRP started to show signs of the old party reigns and a target for the opposition, which resulted in a virtual tie in the 2004 elections. Enkhbayar was conveniently posted as speaker of parliament, while Elbegdorj had a chance to head the first coalition government of Mongolia. A year later Enkhbayar ran for president against a field of three well known but divided opponents. His rivals took enough heat fighting each other for Enkhbayar to easily win in the first round.

Elbegdorj was soon ousted as prime minister and all three former opponents of Enkhbayar in the presidential election got minister posts in a new coalition cabinet headed by the MPRP’s M. Enkhbold. He himself was ousted by the MPRP in favor of the coming man Bayar. Protests followed and the MPRP building was stormed and damaged. Both times Elbegdorj was prime minister, he didnt actually run for office, but was installed as a compromise in a later stage. In 2008 Elbegdorj finally ran as DP leader for parliamentary elections, but loses. He – and other smaller party leaders – blame the MPRP. Protests turn into riots on the dramatic day of July 1st. The MPRP building, with ironically a duty free liquor store on the first floor, didn’t survive this time. That day, with the death of 5 people during a political inspired protest, Mongolia loses part of it innocence that was so well kept during the democratic transition.

Elbegdorj sends out a letter to the international community accusing the MPRP of soviet style dictatorship and even insinuating the MPRP might have caused the violence themselves. However, his public image is harmed and he is forced to lay down the DP leadership.

It takes two to tango
The opposition parties are careful to not repeat the mistake of infighting like during the last presidential election. Also regulated by a lack of parliamentary presence of other parties only the DP puts a candidate forward, with a few smaller endorsing their candidate. It might have come as a surprise that Elbegdorj was put forward. It might be a rather strategic choice. This is Elbegdorj’s last chance. He hasnt won election yet – he withdrew from a parliamentary seat election in favor of MPRP’s Enkhbold in 2006 – and is slowly moving down in ranks of the DP. If he loses this election again it is unlikely he will ever run again. But he does still have most name recognition among the voters, can point back to past achievements and – for good or worse – is able to mobilize people.

Meanwhile Enkhbayar’s image has been damaged by accusations of old party methods and a stream of corruption claims. According to word on the street, every hotel and bank seems to belong to him and his relatives. Although no claims have ever been proven, the buzz seems unstoppable. Tony Blair’s image suffered in his last days as well, and the “Blair of the Steppes” might have lost some of his flair as well. Although Elbegdorj and the DP were previously embraced by the international community, the mining interests now might favor the stability of keeping the incumbent, as they have enough other challenges on the road ahead.

Change for who?
Whatever language used during the campaign, Mongolia will not get their Obama. The candidates Mongolia voted on today are both reformers, turned into establishment, with somehow a battered image. There is the impression today was a choice between the lesser of two evils. “I hate Elbegdorj, but we have to have change,” said a woman to AFP, defending her vote for the candidate. So there might indeed be change. We do know that one of them will loose. And their is fear of protest in either way. An uncomfirtable situation for either: Enkhbayar might look quite unpresidential fighting election results and Elbegdorj might suffer from ghost from the past. In anyway loss for either of the candidates will most likely mean the end of their political career. The person might actually enjoy that, for a change.


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