Interview with Choinzon SODNOMTSEREN, Chairman of the Mongolian General Election Commission granted the following exclusive interview to ‘The Mongolian Observer’ answering questions about the country’s election system, the lessons learned and the experience Mongolia shares in its efforts to build a stronger election system.
This year, Mongolia observed the 25th anniversary of the first free and democratic election in Mongolia. Can you share the historical significance of this election?
The democratic revolution of 1990 opened a unique opportunity for Mongolians to exercise their electoral rights for the first time in the country’s history. Irrespective of their national identity, religion, social status, age, gender, or ideology, the people, voluntarily elected their representatives from many parties through direct suffrage and secret ballot.
On March 21, 1990, the 8th session of the 11th Great People’s Khural (GPKh) of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) was held which considered and approved draft changes and amendments to the Constitution of the MPR and the draft law on electing deputies to the GPKh of the MPR. This session of Parliament removed a provision from the Constitution which proclaimed the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) as the “leading and guiding force of society,” legitimized the abstaining of some categories of civil service from political party affiliation, and instituted the right of people to form and join political parties and civil society organizations. At its 9th session, the GPKh adopted laws on reforming state institutions of the MPR and introduced changes and amendments to the Constitution as well as on political parties.ÂÂÂ In this way the MPR became a parliamentary republic with a bicameral Parliament — the Great People’s Khural and the State Baga Khural (SBKh). Through the GPKh, the people instituted the highest state legislature, institution of the President, and a standing Parliament in the form of the SBKh.
Although Article 4 of the 1960 Constitution of the MPR stated that, “the Khurals will be elected through universal direct suffrage and secret ballot…,” this was merely a dogmatic statement of socialist nature where the voters neither had the right to contend the election returns, nor to nominate, and where electors had to vote for just one candidate proposed by the party and vote for a single political party which had the guiding and leading role in society. As a rule, voter turnout was 90 to 100 percent.
The first democratic election held on July 29, 1990 was an invaluable historical milestone in the political and legal life of Mongolia’s population. For the first time in the country’s history, candidates from 6 political parties as well as public organizations and even independents ran in the elections with a voter turnout of 98% from a registered 1,027,100 electors. The free and democratic election was indeed a very high voter turnout, but at the same time, an illustration of the genuine exercise of the right to elect and be elected, one of the important assets of democracy. By law, political parties registered with the Supreme Court had the right to run in elections. On May 16, 1990, the MPRP registered for the election with 100 thousand members followed by the Mongolian National Progressive Party (MNPP) with 1800 members. On May 22, the Mongolian Free Labor Party (MFLP) registered with 809 members, on May 24 the Mongolian Democratic Party (MDP) with 7200 members, on May 24 Mongolian Social Democratic Party (MSDP) with 2900 members and finally on May 26, the Mongolian Green Party (MGP) with 806 members took part in the elections after they were registered by the Supreme Court.
With this, the parties launched their election campaigns giving the parties an opportunity to showcase their election platform and goals and the electors received the right to make their own choice. There were 9963 elections commissions set up at election constituencies and sections and more than 43 thousand people were involved in these commissions.
The 1990 election was held in two stages. A total of 2413 candidates were running in the elections from 430 constituencies. In the first stage, 402 deputies from 430 constituencies were elected and the second stage of the elections was held on August 15 in 28 constituencies. In the election, the MPRP won 343 seats, the Mongolian Democratic Union – 23, MNDP – 7, MSDP – 4, MFLP – 1 seat, and there were 51 independent candidates.
The first session of the GPKh was held in September 1990. It elected and approved 50 members of the standing Parliament – the State Baga Khural, including its Speaker, Vice Speaker and Secretary. The MPRP had 33 seats, the MNDP – 13, MSDP – 4, and MNPP – 3 seats each in the SBKh. They also elected the President of Mongolia and formed a new Government.
With this first free democratic election came an end to the totalitarian regime that controlled the country for almost 70 years and by passing the new Constitution on January 13, 1992, legal foundations were in place for the country to build a brand new social system. In this sense, the first democratic election on July 29, 1990 was a very important historical event that holds a significant place in the political and democratic history of Mongolia
Mongolia’s electoral system is constantly undergoing changes and in this respect we must mention the use of electronic voting machines and a biometric voter registration system. This reform and the experience gained in this respect are favorably recognized internationally. Can you please elaborate on this topic?
In order to answer this question, it is appropriate to divide Mongolia’s election system in two… pre- and post-1990.
The Constitution of 1960 states that, “the Mongolian People’s Republic is a socialist country of workers, herders, farmers, and working intelligentsia. The Khurals of People’s Deputies shall be elected by citizens of the MPR through universal and direct suffrage, through secret ballot.” Although the voting right was proclaimed by law; in effect the elections were organized and managed by the party and as a one-party system. The notion of “competition” was absent and there would only be one candidate nominated who would be given 100% of the votes. The election commissions that were set-up then were merely formal bodies and the election principles were only implemented for the sake of appearance.
Through legal means, the 1990 election genuinely provided people with the right to elect and be elected. Relevant legislation was streamlined and the electoral bodies were given independence and neutrality. Changes and amendments made to the Constitution were important moves towards holding genuinely free elections in the country and the first free, democratic, multi-party elections were held in July 1990. A working group to prepare for the election was formed in 1990 and the formation of a 25-member election commission was the forerunner of today’s independent General Election Commission.
As a result of the first democratic election, the Great People’s Khural adopted a new Constitution in 1992 which legalized, in the real sense of the word, the right to elect and be elected. Since then, six Presidential and Parliamentary elections were held after adopting the new Constitution. Elections to the State Great Khural from 1992-2008 were held under the majority system. According to the election law of 2011, a mixed parallel system was applied with 48 seats elected from each constituency by a first-past-the-post system and 28 were elected on a closed proportional representation list on one ballot,
The State Baga Khural established a 15-member central independent and sovereign organization (General Election Commission – ‘GEC’) to conduct Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 1992. The law on parliamentary elections adopted in 1992 states that the electoral system would consist of the general election committee, district, and sub-district committees. In 2006, the State Great Khural (incumbent parliament) enacted the law on the central election body regulating GEC’s legal status, its structural set-up and its functioning. It states that the GEC will organize and provide professional management for the national level referendum, Parliamentary and Presidential elections, elections for aimag, capital city, soums and district local assemblies, and it would be an independent, sovereign state institution with 9 members. Prior to the 2012 Parliamentary election, there were irregularities in voter registration and delays in announcing election returns owing to hand counting of votes. The election committees had representation from political parties and subsequently, there was a division on party lines leading to protest demonstrations, riots and disturbances. A case in point was the political riot and disturbance following the 2008 parliamentary election. After reaching a consensus, political parties enacted new laws in 2011 on parliamentary elections and on an automatic election system which was progressive reform for the country’s electoral system.
Voter identification using biometric data, ballot casting, vote counting, vote tabulation and election return reporting are all done using technology in line with the new legislation during all national and local level legislative elections in 2013 and the Presidential election in 2013. This prevented all subjective factors that could possibly cause illegal interference with the process of the elections. Furthermore, external voting for Parliamentary elections was introduced in the Law on Elections by the Parliament enacted in 2012, which was yet another important milestone in reforming the country’s electoral system.
Besides studying and applying good election practices from other countries, Mongolia is also sharing its experience and lessons learned with other emerging democracies, such as Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. We are happy to share what we have learned anew.
World democracies closely follow and appreciate the electoral reforms in our country. For instance, in its final report on the 2013 Presidential election in Mongolia, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that “voters were able to cast their votes freely and voting was assessed positively in 99% of the polling stations observed.”
Parliamentary elections were recently held in Kyrgyzstan and many officials from Kyrgyzstan visited the GEC of Mongolia to learn about the country’s electoral system. In what area did Kyrgyzstan show interest and what experience was applied during the recent elections there?
The 2012 Parliamentary and 2013 Presidential elections in Mongolia were monitored by observers from the Central
Commission for Elections and Referenda of the Kyrgyz Republic. Sate, government and political party leaders also made several visits to Mongolia to learn more about the technology we used in our elections. For the first time in history, Kyrgyzstan applied voter registration, vote casting and counting technology in its October Parliamentary elections. Although their technology is identical to what we are using in Mongolia, theirs is a more modern and updated version. The Central Commission for Elections and Referenda of the Kyrgyz Republic concluded that Mongolia’s experience was extremely helpful in conducting the recent elections. Results of the elections were determined almost one hour after the polling booths closed.
Mongolia’s Presidential election law contains a provision which controls the counting of votes. Kyrgyzstan also used this method to counter-check electronic vote counting. As a result, the experiment was successful and the elections were peaceful.
We understand that Myanmar, Korea, and even the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance expressed interest in learning from and applying Mongolia’s experience in organizing elections?
The 2013 Presidential elections in Mongolia had large observer teams from World, Asian and European election institutions as well as the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their appraisal of the elections in our country was extremely positive. During her recent meeting with the Vice Minister of Mongolia, the former UN Resident Coordinator in Mongolia said, “Mongolia can be proud of many things and democracy is one of them as it was established in the country through peaceful means. The conducting of elections in Mongolia is an experience worthy of international application.”
A study conducted by the UN Development Program in Mongolia showed that voter confidence in elections was relatively high and was also confirmed by a poll conducted by other NGO’s such as the Mongolian Voter Education center which concluded that 25% of the observers concluded that voting and vote counting was “very good”, and some 70% said they were “good”.
Although observations by the OSCE and UN specialized agencies in Mongolia, as well as Mongolian civil society organizations were done separately, their results were almost identical which means that the appraisal given to the elections in the country are realistic.
V. E. Churov, Chairman of the Central Election Commission of Russia came to Mongolia in 2013 to observe the Presidential elections and was extremely interested in seeing the process of automatic voter registration, vote casting and voter information transfer systems being applied by election sub-committees.
He said, “It is extremely important for a country like Mongolia, with its varying geographical, natural and cultural diversity, and with unequal location and distribution of voters, to create an equitable voting opportunity for all electors that can ensure uniformity in the election process. In order to tackle these objectives, the Mongolian GEC is successfully using the latest information and election technology; and for the first time in its history, has a fully automated election system. Thanks to this system, the election results are realistic. All this forms the basis for your success.”
During his visit to the Mongolian GEC, Yves Leterme, Secretary General of International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) said, “Without rules and a fair referee, a good football player cannot be an exceptional player. The development of Mongolian’s election process becoming a role model for others is the result of the General Election Commission’s work”, and expressed confidence that Mongolia would share its experience in the region as well. He suggested that Mongolia share its experience in streamlining the electoral process with other countries in the region, specifically mentioning that the Kyrgyz Republic and Myanmar would be “soon be holding elections”. Subsequently, Mongolia has expressed an interest in working together with and seeking the support of International IDEA on sharing and introducing Mongolia’s election experience at the regional level. Many countries such as Myanmar, Kyrgyz Republic, Korea and others are studying Mongolia’s experience and some are already applying similar practices.