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President Nachagyn Bagabandi of Mongolia's ruling, former Communist party easily won reelection in May 2001. His victory suggested that in a time of wrenching economic change, many Mongolians long for the social safety net they enjoyed under Communist rule. Bagabandi's victory, which came a year after his party returned to power by winning the more crucial parliamentary elections, came as Mongolians continued to face high unemployment and other hardships associated with the country's transition to a market economy. It also followed brutal winter weather that created hardships for herders by killing off more than one million livestock.
Once the center of Ghengis Khan's sprawling empire, Mongolia has been dominated for much of the past three centuries by China and Russia. Following two centuries of Chinese control, the Soviet Union backed a Marxist revolt in 1921 that led to the creation in 1924 of a single-party state under the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP). For the next 65 years, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state.
Mongolia's democratic transition began in 1990, when the MPRP responded to pro-democracy protests by legalizing opposition parties and holding the country's first multiparty elections. Facing an unprepared and underfunded opposition, the MPRP easily won parliamentary elections that year and again in 1992.
The dominant political issue in post-Communist Mongolia has been the pace and extent of economic reforms. Government efforts to foster a market economy have helped create a fledgling private sector but have also contributed to soaring unemployment and other social miseries. The MPRP government privatized retail businesses and ended collectivized herding, but had difficulty retooling the economy to survive the loss of Soviet subsidies. Many large industries went bankrupt, which threw thousands out of work.
Promising better economic management, the reformist opposition Democratic Union Coalition (DUC) won the 1996 parliamentary elections, sweeping the MPRP out of parliamentary power after 72 years. The DUC consists of the National Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and two smaller groups.
Prescribing shock therapy to speed Mongolia's economic transition, incoming Prime Minister Mendsaihan Enksaikhan tightened fiscal and monetary policies, freed prices, slashed pensions, and cut tariffs. The changes, however, coincided with sharp falls in world prices for two of Mongolia's biggest foreign exchange earners, copper and cashmere. The resulting drop in export revenues contributed to huge budget deficits. This gave the government little room to boost social spending at a time when Enksaikhan's radical policies were helping to send inflation and unemployment soaring.
Running a campaign that stressed social welfare issues, the MPRP's Bagabandi, a former parliamentary chairman, defeated the DUC's Punsalmaagiyn Orchirbat, the incumbent, in the May 1997 presidential vote. Three years later, the MPRP swept back into power in the July 2, 2000, parliamentary elections. Under a 75.2 percent turnout, the MPRP captured 72 seats. During the campaign, MPRP chairman Nambariin Enkhbayar, 42, who later became prime minister, pledged to seek a "third way" between his party's still-powerful conservative wing and the government's rapid economic liberalization policies. Many blamed these policies for the poverty rate's doubling since 1991 and the state welfare system's virtual collapse, although the loss of Soviet subsidies also contributed to the difficulties.
Bagabandi's reelection in 2001 was seen widely as yet another rejection of the DUC's policies, even though the president actually campaigned on pledges to speed up some economic reforms. Many voters were disillusioned with soaring unemployment, the country's poor welfare and education systems, corruption, and crime, Reuters reported after the election. Enkhbayar's government, meanwhile, tried to ease the pain of privatization. It gave the go-ahead in February to privatizing 18 large state-owned enterprises, but earmarked a minimum of five percent of the revenues for job creation programs and other social investment.
Adding to the hardship, two consecutive brutal winters have killed off millions of livestock, causing severe hardship to herders. Harsh weather killed at least 1.3 million livestock in the winter of 2001, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Some 40 percent of Mongolians rely for their livelihood on the country's 30 million livestock.
Mongolians can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1992 constitution vested executive powers in a prime minister and created a 76-seat Great Hural (parliament), which is directly elected for a four-year term. The constitution also vested some governmental powers in a directly elected president, who serves a four-year term. The president must approve candidates for prime minister and can veto legislation, subject to a two-thirds parliamentary override. President Nachagyn Bagabandi's rejection in 1998 of several parliamentary nominees for prime minister, which led to months of political gridlock, created a still-unresolved constitutional question over the correct role of the president in approving prime ministers.
Mongolia's judiciary is independent, but corruption among judges is "a concern," according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Mongolia's human rights record in 2000. In a holdover from the country's Communist past, defendants are not presumed innocent. Despite recent government initiatives, conditions in pretrial detention and prisons continue to be life threatening because of insufficient food, heat, and medical care and overcrowding. Roughly 100 prisoners died in custody in 2000, largely because of disease and prison mismanagement, down from about 200 such deaths in 1999, the State Department report said. Inmates often come to prison already suffering from illnesses or starvation because of the lengthy time many spend in police detention, where conditions are worse. Separately, recent reforms have helped curb police abuse of detainees and prisoners, although anecdotal evidence suggests that rural officials have been slow to adopt the new procedures, according to the State Department report. Raising questions about law enforcement in Mongolia, authorities have never identified any suspects in the 1998 murder of Sanjaasuren Zorig, the leader of the pro-democracy movement that ended single-party rule.
Mongolian media offer a range of independent and party views but practice some self-censorship, the U.S. State Department report said. The law places the burden of proof on defendants in slander and libel cases, which may have a chilling effect on the media. In a move that some journalists viewed as an attempt to harass the media, the incoming MPRP government shut down two papers in 2000 for failing to comply with laws on taxes and coverage of violence and pornography.
The state-owned Radio Mongolia, the major source of news in the vast countryside, is free from political control. It faces competition from at least one private radio station that can reach most of the country as well as several small local FM stations. Mongolia also has at least two private television stations, but they have limited reach. The government has moved slowly in complying with a 1999 media law that required it to privatize all state-owned print media. It also must transform Radio Mongolia's parent company, Mongolian Radio and Television, into a public broadcasting service headed by an independent board of governors.
Parliament in 2000 approved the creation of an official human rights commission, which will be able to field complaints from citizens. Nongovernmental human rights groups actively investigate human rights abuses and publicize their findings. Women run many of Mongolia's most effective nongovernmental groups, including some that organize voter-education programs, lobby government officials, and promote women's rights and child welfare. Women also make up a majority of university graduates, doctors, and lawyers and have helped set up and manage many of Mongolia's new trading and manufacturing companies. They are, however, underrepresented at the higher levels in government and the judiciary.
Domestic violence continued to be a serious problem, according to the U.S. State Department report, although there are no accurate figures on the number of victims. Mongolia's dire economic situation has undermined child welfare, as the government lacks the resources to meet many basic educational, health, and social needs of youths.
Mongolians of all faiths worship freely in this mainly Buddhist country. Some religious groups seeking to fulfill mandatory registration requirements, however, have faced demands for bribes and other harassment by local officials, the U.S. State Department report said.
Mongolian trade unions are independent and active, although the government's slimming down or sale of many state factories has contributed to a sharp drop in union membership to less than half the workforce. Many laid-off state employees now work in small, nonunionized firms or are self-employed. Collective bargaining is legal, but under current economic conditions employers enjoy considerable leverage and often unilaterally set wages and working conditions. The government prohibits strikes in sectors it considers essential, including law enforcement, utilities, and transportation.