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    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    Change, all of a sudden, in Mongolia

    Beijing - Amid all the alarming news about North Korea’s recent nuclear test and the reflections on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago this week, a little piece of promising news from this region got far less attention than it deserved.

    Last Sunday, June 24, some 1.1 million Mongolians, or nearly three-quarters of all eligible voters, went to the polling stations. It was the country’s sixth presidential election since the country left the Soviet Union’s orbit and embraced multi-party politics in 1990 and this time around, another milestone was reached: a candidate other than the leader of the Mongolian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party won.

    Following a hard-fought campaign, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of the opposition Democratic Party won 51 per cent of the vote, ousting incumbent Nambariin Enkhbayar of the MPRP. And while the MPRP’s narrow victory in parliamentary elections a year ago had sparked deadly riots amid accusations of electoral fraud, there was no violence this time around or allegations of improprieties this time around.

    Mr. Enkhbayar, whose party has dominated Mongolia politics for nearly 90 years, gracefully conceded defeat even before the final results were officially announced. The street parties began soon afterwards.

    The vote was hailed as “free and peaceful” by the U.S. State Department. “This election is a clear demonstration of Mongolia’s continued commitment to democratic reform and represents a real achievement for such a young democracy,” spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement. Even more remarkable was the fact that Mongolia’s democratic evolution has happened despite the fact the country is wedged between Russia and China, two giants somewhat less concerned with the will of the people.

    Those who observed the process up close were just as impressed. “The riots last year had everyone a little worried. Here was the one country in the region that was seemingly doing very well in terms of building democracy and institutions – compared with everything else going on in Asia – and suddenly maybe that wasn’t the case. This election really reassured everyone,” said Julian Dierkes, an assistant professor at the Institute of Asia Research at the University of British Columbia who was on the ground in Mongolia as a monitor last week.

    There is, unsurprisingly, a whiff of big-power politics in all this. Though Mongolia was never formally part of the old USSR, its political scene is very similar to that in former republics like Ukraine, Georgia and parts of Central Asia, with one party (in Mongolia’s case, the MPRP) seen as aligned with Russia and the other (Elbegdorj’s Democratic Party) closer to the United States. The early analysis is that the Mongolia’s new president will try and decrease the country’s reliance on Moscow by upping ties with the U.S., Europe and Canada. (China is also increasingly a player in Mongolia’s business scene, but until now has played only a background role in the political struggle.) All that aside, no one but the Mongolians cast their vote last week, and they now appear to have chosen a Democratic Party president who will have veto power over an MPRP-controlled parliament. Now all they have to do is work together to deliver on voters’ hopes that they can lead the country out of endemic poverty.

    Despite opening its mining sector and signing lucrative deals with international firms, one-third of Mongolians live below the poverty line.

    p.s. Speaking of Tiananmen Square, I’m watching BBC World in The Globe and Mail’s Beijing office as I type this. Each hour, when the anchor tries to introduce the piece BBC has done for the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989, the screen here goes blank. I assume the piece they don’t want people to see is this one.

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