Domestically for Mongolia, Sunday’s election was a confirmation of a fledgling democratic process, writes Michael Mitchell of Orion Strategies, in this guest posting. Nearly 75% of eligible voters (1.7 million) went to the polls–many on horseback or riding camels to cast their vote. Nomadic herdsmen make up a third of the population.
Knocking off a sitting president is never easy. Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj ran a perfect campaign with a message based on change and a credible plan to address the country’s economic problems.
Despite the fact that he was Prime Minister twice, Elbegdorj was able to convince Mongolians that he was the agent of change. By any standards it was a stunning victory by a key leader who led Mongolia out from under Communist rule nearly two decades ago.
Within the region, Elbegdorj’s victory was a rebuke to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who orchestrated a visit barely a week before the election and brought with him trade deals and an aid package for Mongolia’s railroad, a move clearly made to bolster President Enkhbayer. Moreover, Mongolian media reported that a Russian PR team that had worked for Putin was in Ulannbaatar consulting for Enkhbayer.
The Democratic Party presented a unified front, was highly organized and Elbegdorj outworked Enkhbayer. Where Enkhbayer traveled with Mongolian celebrities such as sumo wrestlers and singers, Elbegdorj traveled with a close group of advisors and held intimate and free-wheeling town hall meetings. It was a very personal campaign. An interesting side note is the effectiveness of using the Internet to organize in Ulaanbaatar where Elbegdorj ran up numbers high enough to offset a slight Enkhbayer advantage in rural areas.
Mongols live in a tough neighborhood. A landlocked country sandwiched between the Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon, it is akin to living between the Crips and the Bloods. Perhaps what makes this election all the more significant is the fact that Mongolia’s democracy demonstrates that there can be a peaceful transfer of political power in a Central Asian country. No tanks firing on Parliament, no Tiananmen Square.