by Ewen Levick | Editor
In mid-October 2020, Mongolians braved chilling weather and queued up to vote for their local council members. The National Labour Party (NLP), also known as HUN, won the third-highest number of seats in Ulaanbaatar (UB); 12 at the district level and three at the city council level, which has 45 seats. In June’s national election the party got around 5 percent of the popular vote.
Munkhdul Badral Bontoi, known as Mogi, was one of the NLP’s candidates and is now a representative on the Sukhbaatar district council in UB. On the phone, he comes across as articulate and quietly ambitious - and he holds big plans for the NLP and for Mongolia's future.
From a stock trader to a politician
“I decided to go into politics a long time ago,” he begins. “I was a stockbroker for a few years, then created Cover Mongolia (a newswire service) in 2013. Around that time I started joining a lot of civil society organizations as a volunteer.
In 2015, Mogi became aligned with the NLP, a progressive outfit of young and well-educated Mongolian professionals. But he didn’t feel ready to get into politics just yet, so he returned to university and graduated in 2019 from Singapore’s renowned Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy - a school that says it wants to raise standards of governance throughout Asia.
Then Mogi returned to Mongolia with a clear vision: to reform the country’s political and policy-making process.
So he re-joined the NLP, which brings together academics, professionals, economists, lawyers and engineers. The five years since its creation have seen ups and downs with false starts in the 2016 national elections but this year a number of his party fellows got elected to the national parliament and the UB city council.
“And this year we finally had some substantive results,” he says, sounding optimistic. “We have one MP and a dozen local council members, so we’re coming along.”
Mo’ money mo’ problem?
Mogi says that he and the NLP are focused on changing election campaign financing and preventing corrupt politics.
“It’s absolutely a systemic issue,” he says. “We knew it was a systemic issue, we knew it was an issue within the parties themselves.
"The root of the problems was within parties and how elections were run.”
Mogi sees the influence of money in Mongolian politics as so extensive that normal political discourse – the usual debates on policy and ideology that you’d find in a democracy like Australia or Canada – is almost a luxury, an afterthought to the main question of finding money for political campaigns.
“Some people have told me privately that they spent more than $1 million on their election,” he told me. “I hear about how expensive it is in the US, but I’ve never heard of MPs in the UK spending millions of dollars. Now, under the surface, politicians [in Mongolia] just talk about money. Who has it and who can get more.”
How to end campaign corruption: Mogi’s plan
I ask Mogi about how he’ll work to reduce corruption in the system. He says that the NLP wants to reduce the influence of money and lower barriers for wider participation in politics.
To do this, Mogi says he and the NLP are taking a two-pronged approach: political party reform and election reform.
The goal of political party reform is simply to increase transparency. According to Mogi, this means mandating financial disclosures so that donations and spending are brought to light.
“Political party financing needs to become clearer and more transparent,” he says. “Right now in Mongolia there’s only one party – ours – that discloses an audited financial report annually. No other party does this.
“We need to completely change the political party law so that parties disclose their donations and financing.”
His goals for election reform are a little more complex and involve increasing volunteer participation in Mongolia to decrease the cost of running for office.
“A good portion of election expenditure is printing brochures, putting up signs and billboards, hiring people to distribute those brochures,” he says. “Most staff in US campaign offices, for example, are volunteers. But here there’s no such thing as volunteers.”
It’s an ambitious goal that would require a way to re-incentivize civil participation and motivate younger people.
“In the district council election, I didn’t pay anyone,” he says. “And now that I’m elected, I’m not beholden to anyone. I’m not even beholden to my party.”
In the shorter term, he intends to act as an effective opposition and to educate the public on what district councils do and how they can solve local problems.
“A one-man opposition (there’s actually two of us) can still do a lot of things.
"We can make the district finances and governors more transparent,” he says. “There’s a lot of corruption at the district level, especially regarding tenders and contracts.
“My second goal is to educate the public on what a district council member does; monitoring the district governor’s office, representing your constituents and forwarding their grievances to relevant authorities.”
On Mongolian democracy
I ask Mogi whether he thinks Mongolian democracy is fragile. He thought for a moment.
“I think the core conditions for democracy are still there,” he says. “However, the things that make for a quality democracy are not. Freedom of speech, human rights – those remain issues.”
He believes those issues have negatively impacted international investment.
“In young or fragile democracies, populism often becomes the main tool of politics,” he says. “We became a democracy and a market economy very quickly, so Mongolians didn’t have time to learn what that means.
“So early on, politicians began using foreign investment as a scapegoat.”
Mogi believes that issue is once again a symptom of public education, something he aims to improve during his time in office.
“People should understand that foreign investment is the only way for us to develop,” he says. “We can’t develop without it.”
Gaining power by 2028
Although Mogi will be busy over the next four years, he has bold plans for himself and the NLP. The party wants to be in power by 2028, which is two election cycles away.
“We don’t naively expect to win the election in 2024, but we do want to win many more seats to force these changes as major opposition,” he says. “As a party, we want to be the ruling party by 2028 and to implement these reforms.”
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