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In Mongolia, young leaders seek to usher in new dawn of democracy

Tsenguun Saruulsaikhan shakes hands with a colleague before receiving her Parliament membership card.
| Photo Credit: AP

Tsenguun Saruulsaikhan, a young and newly minted member of Mongolia’s parliament, is unhappy with below-cost electricity rates that she says show her country has yet to fully shake off its socialist past.

Most of Mongolia’s power plants date from the Soviet era and outages are common in some areas. Heavy smog envelops the capital Ulaanbaatar in the winter because many people still burn coal to heat their homes.

“It’s stuck in how it was like 40, 50 years ago,” said Ms. Tsenguun, part of a rising generation of leaders who are puzzling out their country’s future after three decades of democracy. “And that’s the reason why we need to change it.”

In transition phase

Democracy in Mongolia is in a transition phase, said Ms. Tsenguun.

Mongolia became a democracy in the early 1990s after six decades of one-party communist rule. Many Mongolians welcomed the end of repression and resulting freedoms but have since soured on the parliament and established political parties. Lawmakers are widely seen as enriching themselves and their big business supporters from the nation’s mineral wealth rather than using it to develop a country where poverty is widespread.

Voters delivered an election setback to the ruling Mongolian People’s Party last week, leaving it still in charge but with a slim majority of 68 out of the 126 seats in parliament.

Ms. Tsenguun was one of 42 winning candidates from the main Opposition Democratic Party, which made a major comeback after being reduced to a handful of seats in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

She articulates a vision for Mongolia that dovetails with small government Republicans in the United States. In her view, too many people think the government will take care of them, and the large budget just feeds corruption. Government should be as invisible as possible, she said, and give people the freedom and responsibility to build their own lives.

The detention of a couple of journalists in the past several months has fueled worries that the government may be edging backward, eroding the freedoms that democracy brought.

Ms. Tsenguun said her age group, who only know the post-communist era, needs to push back.

The ruling party, which also ran the country during the communist period, is well-entrenched and enjoys the support of many older voters.

Retired community leaders showed up before polls opened at 7 a.m. in an Ulaanbaatar neighborhood. Elders are pioneers, one said, coming first to encourage others to vote.

Younger voters historically have not voted in large numbers, but anecdotal reports suggest their turnout may have risen in Ulaanbaatar in last week’s election. Nearly half the country’s population of 3.4 million people live in the capital.

The People’s Party has tried to reposition itself in response to public discontent. It appointed Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, a relatively young prime minister with a master’s degree from Harvard University, in 2021.

It’s unclear, however, how much the government will change and whether democracy in Mongolia is really on the cusp of a new era.

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