Tue, Jul 02, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Democratic but tiedup, Mongolia braces for political change

By David Stanway  /  Reuters, ERDENE, Mongolia

An hour’s drive from Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, a lavish monument to national hero Genghis Khan could provide a salutary lesson to the champion wrestler and businessman who built it a decade ago: Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa.

Beneath a giant stainless steel statue, portraits of the 13th-century warlord’s successors line the corridors of a museum. Nearly all of them saw their lives cut short during vicious fights for supremacy in medieval Mongolia’s royal courts.

Mongolia is at a political crossroads as public frustration mounts over disputes holding back vital mining and infrastructure projects, and Battulga is preparing for a power struggle.

Since a 1990 revolution, the former Soviet satellite has been regarded as an “oasis of democracy” sandwiched between the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China.

However, power sharing between an elected president and a government appointed by the State Great Khural, Mongolia’s parliament, has left the country in near-permanent deadlock, unable to make progress on major projects, or tackle chronic problems including choking air pollution.

Battulga last year said that Mongolia was incapable of solving what he described as a “systemic crisis.”

He is now trying to change the constitution, raising fears that he is trying to usher in an era of “strongman” politics.

Battulga has said that he is not seeking to erode Mongolia’s 29-year old democracy.

“More than a quarter of a century has passed, but we still haven’t been able to achieve all the expectations we had in 1990,” Battulga told reporters at his office in the parliament building. “What we all know is that change is inevitable. All we need to resolve right now is how to carry it out.”

Mongolians were crying out for a “strong” leader like former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev or Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Sumati Luvsandendev, head of polling group the Sant Maral Foundation.

However, with parliament likely to resist any erosion of democracy and its role, Battulga would struggle to make changes, he added.

“Battulga is desperately trying to play this role, but definitely he cannot,” Sumati said. “I don’t think that there is anyone in Mongolia to play this role.”

Mongolia’s rich mineral deposits dominate its political discourse. Many citizens have grown increasingly frustrated by the country’s inability to convert resources into concrete gains for anyone but the privileged few.

With polls showing strong support for the public ownership of strategic assets, Mongolia’s mines have long served as political weapons, and Battulga is one of many politicians accused of using suspicions about foreign investment to win votes.

Distrust toward foreign miners was reinforced last year after a military operation to strip Chinese investors of a silver mine in Salkhit in northern Mongolia after they were accused of corrupting local courts.

Attempts to reach the investors were unsuccessful and the site remains under government control.

The government has also been involved in a legal dispute concerning the nationalization of a 49 percent stake in the massive Erdenet copper project, sold to a private company by the Russian government.

With elections looming next year, some politicians are also questioning the benefits of the country’s biggest foreign investment project, the giant Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project run by Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto.

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