With Mongolia’s economy poised for boom times, politics is taking a dodgy turn. The April 13 arrest of a former president, Nambar Enkhbayar, on corruption charges has some analysts in Mongolia worried about the formerly communist state’s democratization process. The timing of the arrest has raised questions in the capital Ulaanbaatar about political motives.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June, and polls show the popularity of the governing coalition, comprising the Mongolian People’s Party and the Democratic Party, to be slipping. Enkhbayar, a former political insider, has emerged in recent years as the governing coalition’s most prominent critic.
The fact that Mongolia will rake in billions of dollars from the mining sector in the coming years should give the next government abundant patronage opportunities. Thus, the stakes in the June election are higher than ever before in the post-Communist era.
Enkhbayar’s arrest prompted an immediate public backlash, with hundreds of supporters staging a rally on April 13 in Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar Square. The demonstration progressed peacefully, but in advance of the protest, schools closed and embassies cautioned foreign nationals to stay home.
Recent events have roots in the controversial parliamentary elections of 2008, which were marred by post-vote rioting that left five dead. Enkhbayar was president at the time. Responsibility for the bloodshed – the worst in Mongolia’s post-communist period – is still the subject of heated debate. The current president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who succeeded Enkhbayar in a close 2009 election, was chairman of the Democratic Party back in 2008. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have documented accounts of police firing live ammunition into crowds, followed by illegal detentions and torture. Rights activists allege that successive governments have delayed or ignored investigations into the 2008 post-election events.
The April 13 arrest came a day after Enkhbayar, who officials say had been under investigation for corruption for two years, released classified transcripts of meetings that he and other political leaders held with the National Security Council during the four-day state of emergency he declared to stop the 2008 violence. Enkhbayar was among those who accused Elbegdorj, the incumbent president, of inciting the violence by telling local media the parliamentary elections were fixed. Elbegdorj denies the allegation.
"Almost four years since the July 1 post-election riots there is still no justice for the victims. The fight for justice has so far not resulted in prosecution of any of the police officers suspected [of using] unnecessary or disproportionate lethal force,” an Amnesty International representative wrote to EurasiaNet.org in response to emailed questions.
"We're still waiting for answers. What exactly happened? Why did it happen?" said Naranjargal Khashkhuu, head of Globe International, part of a human rights monitoring coalition formed by local activists.
Enkhbayar served as prime minster from 2000-2004 and president from 2005-2009. Following his narrow defeat in his presidential reelection bid, he split with the governing Mongolian People's Party to form a new party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Amid growing dissatisfaction with the governing coalition, the MPRP could make a mark in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Sumati Luvsandendev, director of the Sant Maral Foundation, a respected public opinion polling entity, suggested that authorities hoped the arrest would take the wind out of the MPRP’s sails. "He [Enkhbayar] has been under investigation for quite a long time now. It’s too close to the elections for [the arrest] not to be related," Luvsandendev said.
Representatives of the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC), which issued the arrest warrant, denied any political motive, adding that Enkhbayar was taken into custody after ignoring repeated summons. The IAAC, which answers to parliament, wanted to question the former president over alleged illegal privatizations of state property, including a newspaper and a hotel, and for allegedly channeling studio equipment donated by Japan to start his own private TV station.
Indignant Enkhbayar supporters at the April 13 rally insisted that the former president was being forcibly sidelined. "Parliament is afraid because our president [Enkhbayar] is going to reveal everything about them. Whether he is found to be corrupt or not, he should have been treated with respect," said 72-year-old Suren Dorj, who compared the arrest to the political repressions of the communist years.
For political observers, recent events have dampened hopes for fair and peaceful elections. Public opinion is polarizing, says Khashkhuu, the human rights monitor. "Many who didn't support him now have changed their views just because they feel sorry for him,” she said. “People are getting divided and I feel this is dangerous."
Meanwhile, the prospects for closure concerning the 2008 violence events remain dim. "The transcripts I've seen so far are just about both ruling parties [the Democratic Party and the Mongolian People’s Party] accusing each other of the violence,” Khashkhuu added. “They only reveal more infighting and instability in the political arena."
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.