Mongolia’s President Is Slicing Away Its Hard-Won Democracy
Corruption and recession have helped push the nation toward strongman rule.
Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga started his career as a wrestler—and he’s just forced Mongolian democracy into submission. In a critical vote on March 27, 82.1 percent of parliament voted to amend the existing prosecutorial system and in favor of a Law on Anti-Corruption, changes that effectively give Battulga free rein to bend the courts in his favor. That happened despite the majority of members of parliament coming from the Mongolian People’s Party—which is in opposition to Battulga’s own Democratic Party.
Since its democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolia has been a rarity in Central Asia: a democratic country where the law and the parliament truly mattered. As of now, that democracy is in peril—swept away by a charismatic president riding public anger about widespread corruption and using it to protect his own allies against the consequences of that corruption.
Mongolian citizens can submit a petition against the law, and the Supreme Court can overrule this decision as unconstitutional, but experts believe both are highly unlikely. The other two potential checks are democratic elections and peaceful protests. But by 2020, when Mongolia has its next elections, the odds of a free and fair vote may have diminished—and the appetite for public protest is small.
The new laws allow any judge to be forcibly recused from any case. Technically, these decisions will go through the National Security Council (NSC) and the Judicial General Council before reaching the president. But the NSC is made up of the president, prime minister, and the speaker, and the Judicial General Council is appointed by the president. These two institutions will never go against the president.
In Mongolia’s fraught political environment, Battulga can decide to prosecute his enemies at will because the courts are now under his control, and any justice who steps out of bounds will lose their power or be appointed to the middle of nowhere. He immediately used his new power to dismiss the general prosecutor, who oversees and appoints more than 500 other prosecutors. The law also removed the term protections around the general prosecutor and the general commissioner of the Independent Authority Against Corruption—whom Battulga immediately dismissed. He will likely replace both with his own cronies.
Munkhsaikhan Odonkhuu, a professor of law at the National University of Mongolia, described the incident as a soft coup. “Previously if you wanted to demolish a democracy you would take it with military force. Now things have changed, you just slowly chip away the constitution and judicial system to create an authoritarian regime,” he told Foreign Policy. Other lawyers echoed his fears.
The Mongolian president once had relatively little power. Key authority rested with the prime minister, representing the ruling party, and the speaker of the Great Khural, Mongolia’s parliament, who is nominated by the ruling party and then voted on by the Khural.
But Battulga’s two predecessors accumulated greater authority to themselves, and the charismatic multimillionaire, elected in 2017, has turned the post into a key one through a series of sharp political moves.
In part that’s because of Battulga’s own background. He’s a fusion of U.S. President Donald Trump’s brash populism with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s macho image. Rather than coming from one of Mongolia’s established families, he started off as an artist and wrestler, winning gold in the Soviet 1983 World Sambo Championships. His status on the national wrestling team gave him the ability to travel and the connections to start an import-export business when the country opened up in the early 1990s. He made a small fortune through purchasing formerly state-owned hotels and broadened his real estate empire into plants and factories—while keeping up his athletic ties as a prominent backer of judo.
In the 2017 campaign, he painted himself as a champion of the people and an archetypal rags-to-riches story. He also fed off popular anger against the Chinese, Mongolia’s hated neighbors, running on a “Mongolia First” platform that emphasized his business skills. And Battulga sold himself as a successful businessman. Amid rampant corruption and an economy hamstrung by falling demand from China, it was a potent package.
He also had good reason to run. Battulga was accused of laundering money when he served as minister of roads, transportation, construction, and urban development from 2008 to 2012. A railway project initiated in 2010 never materialized thanks to the alleged misappropriation of funds—and if he hadn’t won the presidency, he might have been facing serious charges.
He wasn’t the only one with his hand allegedly in the till. Government corruption culminated in the Small and Medium Enterprise scandal last October, when reporters uncovered members of parliament stealing money from a state fund intended to develop such enterprises throughout the country. The fund gave out millions in loans, but $1.3 million of it went to lawmakers’ friends and family. The Mongolia People’s Party saw two ministers resign over the scandal and became bitterly split over accusations of corruption.
The then-speaker, Enkhbold Miyegombo, attempted to oust the prime minister and failed—losing his own power and becoming the target of a bipartisan group of MPs who accused him of corruption in turn. Enkhbold lost the presidential election to Battulga in 2017 and was widely seen as his main rival. Public rallies against him in December and January eventually saw Battulga introducing a bill that amended the law and allowed parliament to remove Enkhbold. On Jan. 29, it passed, and Enkhbold was removed—replaced with Zandanshatar Gombojav, a political ally of Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh.
Enkhbold had plenty of flaws. But turning him into a bogeyman has only benefited Battulga—and allowed him to consolidate his own authority. In his parting words, Enkhbold said, “This is a grey day in the Mongolian parliament. I hope this law isn’t used to change the leadership of the parliament in the future.”
Those changes gave Battulga the key power he needed over the NSC—where all three members have to agree for any decisions to be made. Right now, though Prime Minister Khurelsukh is another aspiring strongman who idolizes Putin and has little time for democracy. Despite belonging to the opposite party, he is all too keen to back Battulga, believing that the president’s power over judges will save him and his party members from prosecution over the Small and Medium Enterprise scandal, as happened to his predecessors. That was also what brought MPs on side—the prospect of shelter under Battulga’s wings from the consequences of corruption.
The public, meanwhile, appears to largely back the measures thanks to Battulga’s argument that his predecessors had created a corrupt system that needed to be cleaned out and had allowed torture and other abuses. The president has painted a compelling picture of the people against a corrupt judiciary and officials. He’s zoomed in on cases like the attempted transfer of the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine to foreigners and or the money wasted on a supposedly “smoke-free” stove design that did nothing to help Ulaanbaatar’s choking pollution.
But one critic, former Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs Temuujin Khishigdemberel, told FP, “There was a way for these issues to be resolved through the legal system, but he is just using this as excuse to become khan.” Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations have condemned the new law.
The Mongolian parliament has subjugated itself to the president. The judiciary is now replaceable. Only the voice of the people can stop this—and right now, they’re mostly in favor. Amid rampant corruption and economic failure, many Mongolians are eager for a strongman—polling shows them backing either Battulga or fellow aspiring strongman Khurelsukh. They’ve been hoping for one man to bring an end to all the bad things in Mongolia, and democracy seems a small price to pay for that.