Bromance is over: Khurelsukh goes up against Battulga leaving premiership to his protege

The bromance between the country's top two leaders may be over after Prime Minister Khurelsukh stepped down from his office accusing President Battulga of escalating anti-government protests on Wednesday. He threatened to impeach President Battulga as a signal of his intention to contest in the presidential race in June.

The Khurelsukh-Battulga duo played well since 2017 preventing any major stalemate in decision-making at the top.

It also helped to bring political stability that the country lacked in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Only two weeks ago, 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, friction between Khurelsukh and Battulga was coming.

Khurelsukh kept higher popularity than Battulga since December 2019 though his ratings weakened following local virus transmission and ongoing economic fallout.

The Wednesday protest in UB city erupted following public outrage over heavy-handed treatment of a coronavirus-infected mother and her newborn baby. By the evening the same day, Deputy Prime Minister Sodbaatar who headed the emergency committee dealing with Covid-19, and Health Minister announced their immediate resignation to calm the public anger. But protesters fanned out demanding quicker re-opening of the economy, more jobs and earning opportunities, and reviewing the Oyu Tolgoi deal.

On Thursday morning, Prime Minister Khurelsukh abruptly announced his departure, reminding that his political struggle would continue as a party leader and MP. The decision was so sudden that even President Battulga asked him to stay. Many were baffled by Khurelsukh’s move as 65% of respondents in a survey said that he shouldn’t have left.

Next cabinet: Who’s in and who’s out?

On Friday morning, the MPP unanimously nominated Oyun-Erdene for the next prime minister - clearly under Khurelsukh's instruction.

Cabinet Secretary Oyun-Erdene (age 40) is viewed as a right-hand of Khurelsukh and was picked in February 2019 when the position was vacated by Zandanshatar - another Khureluskh loyalist.

Harvard-educated Oyun-Erdene was instrumental in nationalizing Erdenet Mining and developing the 2050 vision document, which became the foundation for the current government’s 4-year action plan.

Oyun-Erdene views that privatization and deregulation over the past three decades failed and that special private interests captured the state. As a cabinet secretary, he actively promoted Western-educated and younger professionals in key positions like IT chief, vice-mining minister, and deputy cabinet secretary.

On the policy continuity, Oyun-Erdene will not likely deviate from Khurelsukh’s government line. Oyun-Erdene will inherit many of Khurelsukh’s priorities. He may further tighten state control over ‘strategic’ mines (Erdenet, Tavan Tolgoi) and ‘mega’ infrastructure projects (Tavan Tolgoi's railway and power plant).

In terms of his cabinet appointments, Oyun-Erdene will have the final say and may prefer to introduce younger and fresh faces. MPP’s whip Togtokhsuren and other senior MPP lawmakers though hoped most of Khurelsukh’s ministers would stay. Energy, labor, mining, and construction ministers seem to be safe.

What’s next?

On Friday, the MPP submitted Oyun-Erdene’s name to President Battulga, who has to present him to the parliament within 5 days or by Wednesday (Jan 27).

Since the MPP controls the supermajority in the parliament, Oyun-Erdene’s confirmation should be quick and easy.

After the PM's confirmation, Oyun-Erdene has seven days to introduce his cabinet line-up, which will go through a routine consultation with the president. Last summer, when President Battulga asked to reduce cabinet size Khurelsukh didn’t listen to him and made his appointments as he liked.

A snap election, which is triggered if the parliament fails to nominate and confirm the new prime minister within 30 days, is a highly unlikely scenario as long as the MPP holds supermajority control.