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Mongolia: Democracy Without Prerequisites

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 9, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 127-141 | 10.1353/jod.1998.0044

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Journal of Democracy 9.3 (1998) 127-141

In a vast, sparsely populated sweep of mountains, steppe, and desert in the heart of northern Asia, one of the most remarkable political transformations of the decade is unfolding. Mongolian democracy, in light of most social-science theories and commonsense expectations, should have never been. Few of the factors normally considered favorable for democratization were present in Mongolia at the onset of its regime change in 1990. Mongolia embarked on its transition with the lowest standard of living in the communist world, matched only by Albania. Mongolia was deeply dependent on Soviet aid, and its international economic relations consisted entirely of ties with other socialist countries. By the 1980s, 95 percent of its trade was with the USSR alone. The dissolution of the USSR and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance sparked a degree of economic trauma in Mongolia unusual even by postcommunist standards.

History and geography are no more propitious than economic factors. Until the 1990s, Mongolia had no tradition of democracy. The duration and extent of sovietization was greater in Mongolia than in any other country in the Soviet bloc outside the USSR itself. Mongolia became a single-party Leninist state with intimate ties to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1920s. It experienced the full brunt of Stalinist terror, including forced collectivization, arbitrary mass executions, and the extermination of religious organizations. Geography afforded Mongolia no advantages. It is one of the world's most isolated countries, far from the Western influence that many observers regard as crucial to democratization in postcommunist Eastern Europe. Mongolia's location between two behemoths, neither fully democratic, who have long struggled with one another for dominance in Mongolia, scarcely creates felicitous neighborhood effects. While a permanent external threat can help to sustain national cohesion, it usually creates more pressure for strong hands -- or iron fists -- than for democratic contestation. Finally, Mongolia experienced greater initial political continuity at the onset of its post-Soviet transition than did many other postcommunist countries. Mongolia's communist party organization, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), took 357 of 430 (over 80 percent) of the seats in the Great Hural (parliament) in the first open, multiparty election, held in July 1990.

One can conceive of a handful of structural or cultural preconditions that might have favored democratization in Mongolia, but they do not add to up a convincing explanation. From the time of Athenian democracy through the theory of Montesquieu and to the present day, political observers have often regarded small size as propitious for popular rule. The population of Mongolia is indeed small (roughly 2.5 million), though it is spread over an area three times the size of France. In theoretical terms, however, small size facilitates maintaining dictatorship no less surely than it eases the burdens of managing democracy. In practice, democracy and country size are not closely linked in the modern world. Mongolia's population does enjoy near-universal literacy, undoubtedly an asset in democratization. But in this respect it does not differ from other postcommunist countries, such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, where democracy remains unknown. Mongolia is more ethnically homogeneous than many other postcommunist countries, but it does contain substantial minority communities. Ethnic homogeneity, at any rate, is not highly correlated with democratic achievement in the postcommunist region as a whole. Finally, although Mongolians are quick to point to the "individualism" fostered by their country's hardy nomadic traditions, in comparative perspective such traditions do not consistently abet democratization. In fact, the postcommunist country that most closely resembles Mongolia in its demographic profile, with its large, sparsely populated territory, its poverty, and its nomadic traditions, is Turkmenistan -- indubitably the region's most thoroughly undemocratic polity.

Postcommunist democratization in Mongolia cannot be regarded as "complete," but by any measure it has been extensive. The country has experienced multiple turnovers of power. The first president, Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat, originally represented the MPRP and was first elected by the legislature in 1990. In 1993 he left the MPRP, accepted the support of the liberal opposition, and won re-election in a direct popular vote. The MPRP constituted a large majority in the first parliament, and was...

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