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In May 2005, Mongolians voted in their country's fourth presidential election since the fall of the Communist government in 1990. The victory of incumbent president Nambaryn Enkhbayar came despite protests in March and April by an estimated 5,000 in Ulaanbaatar who demanded the removal of corrupt officials. Meanwhile, the government continued its pursuit of increased foreign trade relations with both Russia and China.
Once the center of Genghis Khan's sprawling empire, Mongolia experienced three centuries of external domination under its neighbors, China and the Soviet Union. China controlled Mongolia for two centuries until the early 1920s. In 1924, a Soviet-backed Marxist revolt led to the creation of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and the world's second single-party Communist state.
Beginning in 1990, however, Mongolia undertook a relatively rapid transition from a Soviet satellite state to a democratic republic. In response to persistent antigovernment protests, the ruling MPRP legalized opposition parties and held the country's first multiparty elections. Facing a poorly prepared and underfunded opposition, the MPRP easily won parliamentary elections that year and again in 1992. However, the 1996 elections demonstrated the progress of Mongolian democracy when, after 72 years, the MPRP was swept out of parliament, and power was transferred peacefully to the Democratic Union Coalition (DUC). The core policies of the DUC coalition, which consisted of the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, were the implementation of political and economic reforms in the post-Com-munist period. After an economic downturn the following year, however, the MPRP regained power with victories in both the 1997 election for the largely ceremonial presidency and in the 2000 parliamentary vote.
General elections held in June 2004 resulted in a political impasse, as neither the ruling MPRP nor the opposing Motherland Democratic Coalition (MDC)-a coalition of the Democratic Party and the Motherland-Mongolian New Socialist Democratic Party (M-MNSDP)-secured the 39 seats required to form a government. In August of that year, despite unresolved allegations of corruption and election rigging from both sides in the parliamentary poll, the MPRP finally agreed to form what has been called an "awkward coalition government" with the MDC. The coalition was formed only after the parties reached a compromise that resulted in the nomination of Tsakhilganiin Elbegdorj (MDC) to a second term as prime minister and the continuation of Natsagiin Bagabandi (MPRP) as president.
In March 2005, an estimated 5,000 people, calling themselves the Just Society Civic Movement, pushed past police in Ulaanbaatar to demonstrate outside the parliament building. The protesters, who included teachers, shopkeepers, unemployed workers, and homeless people, accused the MPRP's Nambaryn Enkhbayar, then Speaker of Parliament and a former prime minister, of embezzlement and blamed the country's chronic poverty on his corruption. They demanded an investigation into allegations that Enkhbayar had diverted $2.9 million from public funds and had manipulated the media in his favor during the previous year's parliamentary elections and called for the government to hold new elections. Elbegdorj, aware that general presidential elections were just months away, appealed to protest leaders, saying, "It's impossible to dissolve parliament, but you can work with us." In an address to parliament, he assuaged concerns about the mass protest by pointing out that "Criticism of government is not necessarily bad&. The very fact that people can voice their opinions is an important achievement of democracy in this country."
Despite the popular protests against Enkhbayar, he secured 53 percent of the vote against Mendsaikhan Enkhsaikhan of the Democratic Party, who took just over 19 percent of the vote, to win the May presidential election. Some experts attributed his victory to pervasive nostalgia for the "stability" provided by Communist Party rule in the past.
The protests were representative of what has become Mongolia's primary political issue since the country's transition to democracy-the pace and extent of economic reform. Market reform began in the early 1990s with the establishment of a fledgling private sector through the privatization of small businesses and the end of collectivized herding. However, these reforms have been ineffective in compensating the economy for the loss of heavy Soviet subsidies; the result has been high unemployment and rampant poverty. In 2005, Mongolia experienced a 7 percent economic growth rate (a 3 percent drop from the 10 percent growth rate in 2004), primarily as a result of higher-than-expected prices for copper, gold, and cashmere- Mongolia's main exports. Although economic growth is helping to raise living standards for some Mongolians, poverty remains the reality for the majority of the population in both rural and urban areas; 36 percent of the population lives on less than 75 cents a day.
Building on the efforts it made last year by signing agreements on cooperation in trade and banking with China, Mongolia sought in 2005 to boost trade with Russia. Elbegdorj said new economic opportunities have emerged following the settlement of Mongolian debts to the former Soviet Union in 2004, including the expansion and modernization of Mongolia's railways, the development of a gas network in the country, the construction of an electricity power line from Russia to China through Mongolia, and the creation of new mining and processing plants. The prime minister stressed that "the development of good-neighborly cooperative relations with Russia is a priority for Mongolia."
Citizens of Mongolia can change their government demo-cratically. However, election rules are not firmly established and have often been changed. While the 1992 constitution created a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, several of Mongolia's past parliamentary elections have been conducted under different electoral systems, varying between multimember districts to single-member districts. There is concern that rewriting the rules before each election makes it difficult to stabilize the expectations of political elites or enhance popular confidence in democratic government. Most executive powers are vested in a prime minister, who is chosen by the party or coalition with the most seats in parliament. The president, however, must approve parliament's choice of prime minister and can veto legislation, subject to a two-thirds parliamentary override. Both the president and the 76-seat parliament, known as the Great Hural, are directly elected for four-year terms.
Corruption is a problem in Mongolia. The U.S. State and Commerce departments both have identified "corruption in the [state] bureaucracy" as one of the typical problems affecting economic and political development in Mongolia. Mongolia ranked 85 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While the government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press, it has been slow to implement a 1999 law requiring the transformation of state broadcast media into public corporations. While independent print media outlets are common and popular in cities, the main source of news in the vast countryside is the state-owned Radio Mongolia. Although most national radio and television stations remain state owned, they are generally free of political control. In October 2005, the coalition government announced plans to convert Mongol TV and Radio into a public broadcasting entity. In addition to state broadcast services, Mongolians have access to local, privately owned television, English-language broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America on private FM stations, and, in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, foreign television programming via cable and commercial satellite systems.
The government monitors all media for compliance with antiviolence, anti-por-nography, and anti-alcohol-content restrictions, as well as compliance with tax laws. The government has at times filed libel suits against media or launched tax audits against publications in the wake of critical articles. Libel charges are hard to defend against, because Mongolian law places the burden on the defendant to prove the truth of the statement at issue. To avoid being sued for libel, many independent publications practice a degree of self-censorship. The State Secrets Law inhibits freedom of information to a degree, as many archived historical records have been given a classified status.
Since the fall of communism in 1990, freedom of religion has been guaranteed by the constitution. The new openness has sparked a growth in Christian, Mormon, and Russian Orthodox faiths, as well as a revival of Mongolia's traditional religions- Buddhism and a native shamanism. Academic freedom is respected. Mongolian professors and other teachers generally can write and lecture freely, and access to higher education is relatively indiscriminant.
Freedom of assembly and association is respected both in law and in practice. A number of domestic and international environmental, human rights, and social welfare groups, although largely reliant on foreign donors, operate without government restriction. Mongolian trade unions are independent and active, though the government's downsizing or sale of many state factories has contributed to a sharp drop in union membership. Collective bargaining is legal, but with Mongolia's poor economy, employers enjoy considerable power and often set wages unilaterally. The government prohibits strikes in the utilities, transportation, and legal sectors.
The judiciary is independent, but corruption among judges persists, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report. In a holdover from the country's Communist past, defendants are not presumed innocent. Although the constitution prohibits unlawful arrest and detention, Mongolia's police force, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, has been known to make arbitrary arrests, keep detainees for long periods of time, and beat prisoners and detainees; such actions were more prevalent in rural areas. Corruption in the police force remains a problem. The military, which has been downsized because of budgetary constraints, is under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense. Prisons have in recent years been outfitted with video monitoring systems, decreasing the incidence of beatings by guards. Nevertheless, deaths in prisons continue to be reported; these are due largely to disease-often tuberculosis-exacerbated by poor conditions like insufficient food, heat, and medical care. A prison reform program centering on training guards and upgrading facilities is ongoing.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, and these provisions are generally respected. In addition, the government respects all citizens' rights to travel freely within the country and abroad.
Mongolia has what the United Nations in 2005 called a "reverse gender gap," as women now make up 60 percent of all students at Mongolian universities. This trend, noted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been largely attributed to the fact that "[in] this predominantly agricultural country, parents often pull their sons out of school so that they can help with herding duty, long considered a male responsibility." Although this trend has not carried over into politics (of the 76 parliamentary seats in Mongolia, only five are occupied by women), it does indicate "a large pool of highly educated and motivated women," according to the Alliance for International Women's Rights. The emphasis on education for Mongolian women represents the improving opportunities available in a country that, under Communist Party rule, largely excluded women from public life.
Domestic violence has been a serious concern in Mongolia. Although there are no reliable statistics regarding the extent of domestic abuse, the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report noted that as much as one-third of the female population may be affected, a situation largely attributable to a high rate of alcohol abuse. Since January 2005, a sweeping new law outlaws spousal abuse defined as "any intentional act or failure to act by a person. . .with respect to another person that infringes upon the latter's human rights, freedom, or any act that causes threat or contains a threat to cause harm." The law empowers central and local government to investigate complaints and impose a variety of sanctions on offenders, including prohibitions on meeting victims, training aimed at behavioral changes, and treatment for alcoholism.