Presidential Power Grab: Corruption and Democratic Backsliding in Mongolia

Mongolian democracy is in trouble. On March 26, President Khaltmaa Battulga proposed emergency legislation that would grant the presidency unprecedented powers to dismiss members of the judiciary, the prosecutor general, and the head of the state anticorruption agency (the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or IAAC). One day later, parliament approved this legislation by a vote of 34-6 (with 36 members of parliament either absent or abstaining), despite the fact that President Battulga hails from the Democratic Party (DP) while the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) controls parliament. Technically the law doesn’t grant the dismissal powers directly to the president, but rather to a three-member National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and an oversight body called the Judicial General Council. But President Battulga dominates the NSC and personally appoints the members of the Judicial General Council, giving him effective authority to remove Mongolia’s judges and chief law enforcement officials at will. Sure enough, promptly after the law was passed, Battulga dismissed the head of the IAAC, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general.

This new legislation, a crippling blow to Mongolian democracy, has its origins in corruption, and corruption is likely to be its effect. President Battulga induced parliament to grant him such extraordinary powers by claiming that he alone can really take on Mongolia’s severe corruption problem. In his statement to parliament introducing the new legislation, Battulga alleged that the country’s law enforcement leaders were “part of a conspiracy system” that “fabricat[ed] criminal cases with a political agenda” while covering up others. The president pointed to Mongolia’s numerous unresolved corruption scandals to argue that the institutions of justice were “serving the officials who nominated and appointed them” rather than the public, and he argued that reducing the independence of the judiciary, the prosecutorial apparatus, and the IAAC would make those institutions more responsive to the popular will to fight corruption.

President Battulga is correct when he asserts that Mongolia has a corruption problem of serious, perhaps epidemic, proportions. Mongolians regularly list corruption as one of the country’s biggest issues (second only to unemployment in a 2018 survey) and political institutions such as parliament and political parties as among the most corrupt entities. The past few years have been especially scandal-plagued. During the 2017 presidential campaign, all three candidates faced accusations of corruption; most egregiously, the MPP candidate—who, until January 2019, served as speaker of the Mongolian parliament—was caught on video discussing a plan to sell government offices in a $25 million bribery scheme. Further, late in 2018, journalists discovered that numerous politically-connected Mongolians, including somewhere from 23 to 49 of the 75 sitting members of parliament, had been treating a government program designed to provide funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a personal piggy bank, taking out over a million dollars in low-cost loans. Beyond these scandals, Mongolia’s poor enforcement record compounds its corruption problem. For example, in 2015, only 7% of cases investigated by the IAAC resulted in convictions, and in 2018 public approval of the IAAC reached an all-time low.

But is there any reason to believe that President Battulga is right that giving him greater personal control over law enforcement and the judiciary will lead to less corruption? All the evidence points to no:

  • First, as mentioned above, President Battulga himself has been accused of corruption. Before his election as president, the IAAC was investigating Battulga for embezzling funds from construction projects that he oversaw while serving as minister of roads, transportation, construction, and urban development from 2008 to 2012. (See here, here, and here). Battulga’s election may have saved him from prosecution, (the president has immunity under Article 36 of the Mongolian Constitution) and now he controls the leadership of the institutions formerly responsible for investigating him. There’s little reason to believe a president with this record will lead a substantial and even-handed campaign against grand corruption.
  • Second, President Battulga has already demonstrated an interest in interfering with the independence of law enforcement for political gain. In the past few months, the president repeatedly pressured the prosecutor general to open a corruption investigation into Battulga’s predecessor and political rival, two-term former president Elbegdorj. (See here and here). The prosecutor general refused, stating that he had to follow the law and could not take orders from any official. This resistance may have precipitated Battulga’s move to propose the new law in parliament, and under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that one of Battulga’s first uses of his new powers was to remove the prosecutor general. A new prosecutor general, appointed by the President, is likely to be more pliable.
  • Third, Battulga seems likely to have bought support for his new legislation by sacrificing the ongoing SME corruption investigation into members of parliament. Many in parliament, implicated in the SME scandal, would have been eager for that anticorruption investigation to come to an end. And as soon as parliament passed the new legislation, Battulga arranged that end by sacking the prosecutor general, who had been leading the SME investigation. Mongolia’s new, acting prosecutor general is himself implicated in the SME scandal and thus seems likely to curtail the investigation he’s now running. (Battulga, too, benefited directly from undermining this investigation, as it’s been reported that members of his family may have been implicated in the scandal.) This result would seem to explain why a parliament dominated by a rival party supported such a naked power grab by an opposition president and suggests that anyone who hoped that political partisanship might have motivated parliament to keep an eye on Battulga in the exercise of his new powers is likely to be disappointed.

There’s no silver lining in this story for those who care about corruption, or democracy, in Mongolia. In the past, Mongolia seemed responsive to external pressure to increase transparency and reduce corruption, and the country has made international commitments to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, and the Open Government Partnership. But Battulga won the presidency on an explicit and nationalist “Mongolia First” platform (see here and here), suggesting he’s unlikely to bow to any outside censure of his reactionary moves. (Certainly such censure is unlikely to come from Russia or China, Mongolia’s immediate neighbors). And while Mongolian citizens have shown a willingness in the past to take to the streets in protest of government venality or lassitude, the President’s reputation as an anticorruption fighter has improved significantly since his election, suggesting that, in this case, he may have the public’s support. In desperation, a group of Mongolian lawyers have filed a lawsuit arguing that Battulga’s new law is unconstitutional, but with the president more firmly in control than ever of an already somewhat suspect judiciary, this suit seems doomed to failure. Thus, Battulga’s enhanced authority is likely to be the new status quo, a big problem for Mongolia’s fight against corruption and a catastrophe for Mongolian democracy.

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