Is the detention of Mongolia’s former president a politically-orchestrated maneuver to stop him contesting next month’s parliamentary elections or an overdue clampdown on corruption in arguably the most robust post-Soviet democracy?
Mongolia’s democratic consolidation has been sufficiently impressive for the country to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Community of Democracies in July 2011.
But the arrest of Nambaryn Enkhbayar has raised questions about the integrity of democratic institutions and rule of law under Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the current president, who defeated him in 2009.
Enkhbayar’s imprisonment is “not only an image problem” but a challenge to “the credibility of the rule of law in Mongolia,” Mark C. Minton, former U.S. ambassador to Ulan Bator, tells the Wall Street Journal:
Election season in historically nomadic Mongolia is often disorderly. In the previous parliamentary election, in 2008, deadly riots followed allegations the tally was rigged. The fallout was a factor in Mr. Enkhbayar’s own loss to Mr. Elbegdorj in presidential elections the following year.
The two—both intellectuals, educated abroad and fluent in English—have long-running differences. Mr. Enkhbayar in the past was the leader of a conservative socialist party that traced its roots to Mongolia’s Soviet era. The current president, Mr. Elbegdorj, is the product of a party that came to power rallying pro-democracy street demonstrations. In November he reconstituted the leadership of the six-year-old corruption watchdog that later ordered his rival’s detention.
The charges against Enkhbayar “make it the highest-level corruption case that Mongolia has experienced since it split from the Soviet Union 20 years ago and are proving to be a severe test of its legal and democratic structures,” the Financial Times reports.
Enkhbayar’s case “calls into question the strength of the country’s democratic institutions,” says Minton, the US ambassador from 2006-2009.
“This is pretty rough, even by the rough and tumble standards of young democracies,” Minton said. “Because the process has been so irregular and so dangerous to the defendant, it opens the door to entertaining some political explanations as the why this process is so severe.”
Populism and “resource nationalism” ahead of the election have caused alarm, with parliamentarians calling for deals to be renegotiated and for “strategic resources” to be taken over by the state, Reuters reports:
Last year, nationalists in parliament failed to persuade the government to renegotiate a landmark 2009 agreement that granted Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines a 66 percent stake in the giant Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine.
“Enkhbayar definitely did a lot for corruption in this country to blossom,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, a respected pollster and commentator in Ulan Bator. “But those who put him in prison did such a bad job that it upset everyone … People have certain extrapolations. If an ex-president can be treated this way then how will an ordinary citizen be treated?”
On a visit to Washington last June, Elbegdorj noted that in December 1989, with the Soviet Union intact and China traumatized by the Tiananmen Square massacre, “little Mongolia” had initiated a democratic transition without bloodshed or “shattering [a] single window” and was well-placed to become the “democratic anchor” of the East.
Power has changed hands several times since in legislative and presidential elections have prompted a turnover of party control several times, as well as periods of coalition government.
“Notwithstanding Mongolia’s successes, the transition to democracy has not been problem-free,” notes Alan Wachman, an Associate Professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy:
Nevertheless, while external observers continue to report concerns about the corrupting effects of venal political figures padding personal coffers at public expense, government accountability, procedural transparency, bureaucratic and legislative efficiency, and rule of law, most Mongolians surveyed about the changes undertaken in the past two decades report a greater satisfaction with their democratic system—warts and all—than with the one-party system under which they suffered in the seven decades that preceded the transformation. Thus, most observers agree that Mongolia has moved beyond the point of no return and that democracy, even if of suboptimal quality, is likely to survive.
“The timing is poor for other reasons, too,” says The Economist:
After huge foreign investment in mining, government revenues are set to bulge. It presents the government with both the opportunity to deal with inequality and poverty, and the task of avoiding the “resource curse” that has afflicted other developing countries. Investors and the IMF had seen Mongolia as a darling among emerging markets. That image suddenly looks fragile.
The Enkhbayar case “prompts fears about the country’s democratization,” writes Pearly Jacob in TransitionsOnline:
Representatives of the Independent Authority Against Corruption, which issued the arrest warrant, denied any political motive, adding that Enkhbayar was taken into custody after ignoring repeated summons. The IAAC, which answers to parliament, wanted to question the former president over alleged illegal privatizations of state property, including a newspaper and a hotel, and for allegedly channeling studio equipment donated by Japan to start his own private TV station.
Recent events have dampened hopes for fair and peaceful elections and polarized public opinion, says Jacob.
“Many who didn’t support [Enkhbayar] now have changed their views just because they feel sorry for him,” says Naranjargal Khashkhuu, head of Globe International, part of a human rights monitoring coalition. “People are getting divided and I feel this is dangerous.”
“At this stage, all one can know with any certainty is that the arrest of the former president does fit an unhappy pattern for former presidents in Asian democracies,” he said by email, citing examples from South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.