Hole #16: Vote Golf

Two men pulled up to the ger on a motorcycle and came inside. One had a ballot box in his hands and the other carried a notebook and stack of ballots. It was election day in Mongolia, and in the countryside, the ballot box makes house calls. I was tempted to imagine that this system could introduce corruption into the electoral process, but when I saw Khatanbaatar, the men on the motorcycle, and one of the neighbors open a bottle of vodka after the votes were cast, I felt more reassured. I passed on the vodka. It was 10:00 AM and I still had 25 km to golf that day.

Some quick history about Mongolian politics: For nearly 70 years, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) governed Mongolia. Some would say that Mongolia was essentially a puppet state of the Soviet Union during this time and took all their orders from their communist brothers in Moscow. After worldwide events in 1989 and 1990, the MPRP agreed to open up the government to free democratic elections. Despite all the protests, hunger strikes, etc. that prompted the elections, the MPRP won. And then they won again in the elections of 1992. Communism was gone however as the new MPRP began the privatization process and opened up the country to foreign investors. This was a necessary step since 30% of Mongolia's economy had been direct aid from the Soviet Union and now this had disappeared.

Then, in 1996 the Democratic Party won the elections to end 75 years of MPRP governance. They did such a poor job running the country that when the elections of 2000 rolled around, the MPRP won back 72 out of 76 seats in the parliament. And now the elections of 2004 had arrived. The MPRP plastered the city with billboards, the state-run television station with advertisements, and countryside gers with calendars displaying the party logo. They were clearly going to win at least 38 out of their current 72 seats to remain in control. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, had forged alliances with other parties to form a coalition, the Democratic Union. Other independent candidates were also in the running but no one gave them much of a chance.

But election day brought unexpected results. The MPRP won 36 seats and the DU won 36, with 4 independents also winning. Then things got even more exciting as both parties were demanding recounts or revotes in many districts. For a while it was 36-34, but more revotes were to come. The independents who had won would most likely align themselves with the DU giving them control but the issue hadn't been settled. At one point the DU stormed the MPRP-run television station and took it over for a couple hours. From my perspective, this was Mongolia's first constitutional crisis since becoming a democracy and echoed the American elections of 2000. It now appears that more districts will revote some time in July and that no one may win a majority of seats. It is unclear who will choose the next Prime Minister but I expect that for the first time ever, the MPRP and the opposition will be forced to work together over the next four years in order for the government to function.

In a country where democracy has only been around for fourteen years, this is certainly an exciting time. I watched as the men finished the bottle of vodka, carefully secured the ballot box to the back of the motorcycle, and sped away, kicking up dust on the dirt road to the next ger. I couldn't help but smile as I thought to myself, "now this is democracy in action."

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