Carlos Barria / Reuters Central square in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, October 13, 2011.

Mongolia's Mangled Politics

How the Parliamentary Election Will Play Out

Given how unhappy Mongolians are with their current government, which they consider inept and corrupt, it would seem that there would be more excitement surrounding the country’s parliamentary elections on June 29. After all, there are 11 competing parties to choose from. But according to a poll conducted by the Sant Maral Foundation, Mongolia’s major polling organization, respondents expressed little confidence in any of them. Barely 14 percent said they would support the Mongolian People’s Party, the leading opposition party, and only 11 percent backed the ruling Democratic Party. Meanwhile, over one-third reported that they did not trust any of the parties to properly lead the country, and 77 percent stated that none of the parties accurately represented public opinion. Part of the problem is that Mongolia is in the middle of a steep recession due, in large part, to China’s declining demand for Mongolian minerals, and none of the political parties seems to know what to do about the economic downturn.

Foreign advisers and visiting dignitaries often tout Mongolia as a democracy. But the country is less a successful transition story and more a lesson in the failure of Western economic policies. The story begins with the collapse of Mongolian communism in 1990s, after which the country continued to regard Russia more highly than the United States. This was due to a certain nostalgia about better conditions during the Soviet era. According to Sant Maral, roughly 61 percent of Mongolians still believe the country should make Russia its primary economic and diplomatic partner, while only seven percent think the United States should take that role. The United States is, in any event, too far away to play as much of a role as Mongolia’s two close neighbors, Russia and China.

Much of the disenchantment stems from the country’s tumultuous transition to democracy. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been Mongolia’s most important trade partner, investor, and adviser, Ulan Bator sought help in shock therapy,” a popular course at the time, which involved immediate privatization, minimizing the government, prohibiting subsidies, balancing the budget, and liberalizing prices and trade, alongside cutbacks on social, educational, and medical expenditures. Many “shock therapy” advocates, including the International Money Fund, have since partly renounced this practice, which was later deemed “shock without therapy.” Although the stringent policies did work for a few post-communist countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, for Mongolia, they were a disaster.

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