mandate for change

In 2006, Daniel Ortega won the presidential election, ushering in the rebirth of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Of course, time changes everything, so the radical leftist agenda they had formerly embraced was tempered with a newfound appreciation of capitalism, and oddly, the embrace of the Catholic Church.   Still, Chavez was on board, and Nicaragua turns sharply left again after years of American-dominated politics.

I was in Nicaragua the following January and was able to watch the inauguration. It was a solemn affair that lasted several hours, with a number of speeches made by a number of Latin America’s most influential leaders.  The US presence was noticeably lacking, even more so when the ill-placed flag of Puerto Rico was abruptly whisked off stage once it became visible.

Ten years earlier, Mongolia was transitioning from a Soviet-style system of governance to democracy, a process that did not go nearly as smoothly as everyone had hoped.  In 1996, US NGOs supported the creation of a Democratic coalition, combining the liberal and social democrats under a single banner.  One organization in particular, the International Republican Institute, for whom I interned, provided expertise in coalition-forming and platform-building.

The Democrats won the majority in Parliament that year, and Ts. Elbegdorj was appointed head of Parliament. Two years later, the coalition fell apart, and in the next parliamentary election, the People’s Revolutionary Party regained the majority, which they have kept ever since (as well as holding the presidential office), with one exception (during which Elbegdorj served as PM).

In 2008, Americans pushed their own desire for change forward, electing our first non-white President, in what I would consider a bit of a landslide (Ohio, PA, Florida, CO?).  I was again lucky to attend an historic inauguration.

And now, in 2009, change once again reappears.  After last year’s riots following allegations of election fraud during parliamentary elections (which the former communists swept), Mongolians were more circumspect about this year’s presidential elections.  Still, a number of events have led to a growing dissatisfaction with the state of Mongolian politics as well as its economy.  Accusations of fraud and corruption abound, and in many areas, from governance to economic policy to land transfer and commercial development.

The incumbent, Enkbayar, was generally assumed to have this election all tied up.  The MPRP holds Parliament and they have held the presidential seat since Mongolia declared independence from China.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia moved towards democracy, but there are still many Soviet holdovers, both political and cultural.  And besides, how often does an incumbent lose?

Just often enough, it seems.  While election results are not officially in, both major parties have agreed on one thing – that Elbegdorj is this election’s winner, even if by a slim margin.  Mongolia has once again presented a mandate for change, defeating a sitting president with its first ever democratic-leaning candidate.

I have no idea if this means anything – I am not sure it meant anything in 1996, despites high hopes for democracy and transparency in Mongolia.  But more than 10 years out, and in the midst of a global financial crisis, I think Mongolians are not willing to let opaque governance be their limiting factor anymore (I might be biased though – I do work at the Open Society Institute).  I am just cynical enough to consider that Elbegdorj doesn’t have entirely clean hands, but just optimistic enough to think that they are probably cleaner than his predecessor’s. And I think the signs point to positive change, both in terms of governance and sound economic policy. And maybe even more importantly, in terms of Mongolia’s engagement with the rest of the world.

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