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Despite a Surge in Covid and a Drop in Turnout, Mongolians Elect a President

In the 30 years since becoming a democracy, Mongolia has proven to be resilient, even in the face of a global pandemic that has tested the strength of its political institutions.  Mongolia’s 2020-2021 presidential election continues the country’s strong democratic tradition.

On June 9, the former Prime Minister and Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) Chair U. Khurelsukh won the election in a landslide, garnering 68 percent of the vote. This is just the latest in a series of strong election showings for the MPP. Typically, Mongolian voters swing against the ruling party in presidential elections but that did not happen this year as the MPP now controls the presidency, the cabinet, and holds a super-majority in parliament. 

Mongolia’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), struggled with party unity leading up to the election and its candidate S. Erdene received only six percent of votes cast. During the six months prior to the election the DP effectively split into two, a division which remains unresolved and leaves the future of the party uncertain.  Not surprisingly, given this deep party rift DP candidate S. Erdene struggled with messaging and spent the campaign attacking fellow party members almost as much as the MPP.  DP voters never unified behind their own candidate, resulting in a historically poor showing.

The Zuv Khun Electorate, led by the National Labor Party (NLP) candidate D. Enkhbat, received 20 percent of the votes cast, which is a strong showing for a party that holds just one seat in the current parliament. The campaign generated considerable online attention through creative social media messaging and raised funds solely via small donations. Despite this energy, his de facto position as the anti-ruling party candidate, and the fact he won 72 percent of ballots from voters living abroad, he did not win a single province across the country or any district in the capital Ulaanbaatar.

Voting took place amidst the backdrop of surging COVID-19 cases, which likely dampened voter turnout. In addition, D. Enkhbat tested positive for COVID just days before the election and the only planned debate was canceled as a result. The pandemic, as well as the limited support for the DP candidate, likely contributed to the lowest voter turnout ever for a Mongolian presidential election, 59 percent.  This low figure can also be viewed as the continuation of a long-term trend of declining turnout since the country’s first presidential election in 1993.

Despite these challenges, it is important to note that international and domestic observers reported that polling was organized and administered efficiently and transparently. Observers noted some concerns about structural issues inherent in Mongolia’s electoral system, including a short campaign period (15 days), some limits on media during elections, questions about media independence and the quality of information available, and limited oversight of campaign finance, among other issues.

Mongolia has successfully administered its eighth presidential election, an achievement for its democracy. However, there remains much to be done. Measures to boost transparency and promote inclusivity in politics, especially at the leadership levels where women remain underrepresented, will be key. And in this new period of MPP dominance, efforts to stimulate policy debate, discourse, and ensure that Mongolians, especially youth, remain engaged and interested in politics and governance will remain high priorities.

Khurelsukh is the first Mongolian president elected to a single six-year term, following constitutional amendments in 2019 that eliminated four-year terms. The 2019 amendments reduced the powers of the president in favor of the prime minister, diluting the president’s influence over judicial appointments and the power to shape cabinet appointments. Despite these changes, President-elect Khurelsukh is clearly Mongolia’s leading political figure.

Over the coming months, Mongolians and the world will start to see what kind of a president he will be. The MPP has a clear opportunity to fully enact its policies if it can avoid the in-fighting, weak policy implementation, and corruption that have plagued many past governments.

IRI and the Asia Foundation stand ready to support Mongolia’s continued democratic development, particularly through our existing partnership under the USAID sponsored Strengthening Women and Youth Engagement in the Electoral and Political Processes in Mongolia (#SWYEEPPM) program.