• Amar Adiya

Bromance Is Over: Khurelsukh Goes Up Against Battulga Leaving Premiership to His Protege

President Khaltmaagiin Battulga (on the right) talking to Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh during the parliament session  in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
President Khaltmaagiin Battulga (on the right) talking to Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh during the parliament session in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The country's top two leaders' friendship may be gone after Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh resigned on January 21, 2021, accusing President Khaltmaagiin Battulga of stoking anti-government rallies. Khurelsukh vowed to impeach the president signaling his intention to run for president in June 2021.

Since 2017, the Khurelsukh-Battulga duo has played well, averting any serious deadlock in top-level decision-making.

It also helped to bring political stability that the country lacked in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In early January 2021, President Battulga was complimenting Khurelsukh and parliament speaker Zandanshatar for deeper understanding and greater collaboration in the National Security Council.

Battulga was apparently hoping Khurelsukh would stay at the helm of the executive branch allowing him to get re-elected without a strong challenger.

As the presidential election approached, tensions between Khurelsukh and Battulga were bound to arise.

Khurelsukh has maintained greater popularity than Battulga since December 2019, albeit his ratings have dipped as a result of local viral transmission and continued economic hardships.

A demonstration in Ulaanbaatar city erupted on January 20, 2021, in response to public indignation over the harsh treatment of a coronavirus-infected woman and her newborn baby.

To appease public outrage, Deputy Prime Minister Yangugiin Sodbaatar, who chaired the emergency committee dealing with Covid-19, and Health Minister announced their resignations the same day in the evening.

Protesters, on the other hand, fanned out, demanding a faster re-opening of the economy, more jobs and earning possibilities, and a review of the Oyu Tolgoi agreement with Rio Tinto.

Prime Minister Khurelsukh unexpectedly announced his resignation on Thursday, January 21, 2021, stating that his political struggle will continue as a party leader and a member of parliament.

President Battulga urged him to stay as he was not expecting it to come from the prime minister. Many people were also astonished by Khurelsukh's decision, as the majority of the public believed he was doing his job well.

Next cabinet: Who’s in and who’s out?

The MPP unanimously nominated Oyun-Erdene for Prime Minister on Friday, January 22, 2021, apparently under Khurelsukh's direction.

Cabinet Secretary Oyun-Erdene (40) is regarded as Khurelsukh's right-hand man and was appointed in February 2019 when the position was vacated by Gombojavyn Zandanshatar, another Khureluskh ally.

Oyun-Erdene, a Harvard graduate, was instrumental in nationalizing Erdenet Mining and developing the 2050 Vision policy paper, which served as the cornerstone for the present government's four-year action plan.

Privatization and deregulation, according to Oyun-Erdene, have failed during the last three decades, and special private interests have controlled the state. He vigorously promoted Western-educated and younger professionals in crucial roles such as IT chief, vice-mining minister, and deputy cabinet secretary as cabinet secretary.

In terms of policy continuity, Oyun-Erdene will most certainly stick to Khurelsukh's government line of policy. Many of Khurelsukh's priorities will be passed down to Oyun-Erdene. He may increase state control of "strategic" minerals (Erdenet copper mine, Tavan Tolgoi coal mine) and "mega" infrastructure projects (Tavan Tolgoi's rail link to China and Tavan Tolgoi coal power plant).

Oyun-Erdene will have the last word on cabinet appointments and may want to bring in younger and fresher faces. Togtokhsuren, the MPP whip, and other senior MPP parliamentarians hoped that most of Khurelsukh's ministers would remain. Ministers of energy, labor, mining, and construction appear to be safe.

What’s next?

The Mongolian People's Party (MPP) submitted Oyun-Erdene's name to President Battulga on Friday (January 22), who must present him before parliament within 5 days, or by Wednesday (January 27).

Because the MPP has a supermajority in parliament, Oyun-Erdene's confirmation should be swift and easy.

Following the confirmation of the PM, Oyun-Erdene has seven days to present his cabinet lineup, which will be subject to normal deliberation with the president. When President Battulga ordered Khurelsukh to trim the size of his cabinet last summer, he did not listen and made his own nominations.

A snap election, which is triggered if parliament fails to select and ratify the new prime minister within 30 days, is highly unlikely since the MPP maintains a supermajority.



Amar Adiya is editor-in-chief of Mongolia Weekly newsletter and regional director at Washington-based strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia.