Soon after I got to work this morning I was asked to cover a meeting hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. After a quick detour home to upgrade my outfit (mindful that in Asia it’s far, FAR better to appear late than in sneakers), I arrived for a round table discussion led by the ODIHR on their report as an election observer of Mongolia’s most recent presidential election, held in June, 2013. The report was just finalised and is being discussed with various stakeholders, including government ministries, the political parties and some civil society organizations (such as the NGO I work for).
Mongolia has a unicameral parliamentary system, with 76 members of parliament and a Prime Minister who is elected by the members. There is also a President, who is elected by a popular vote and once elected steps out of his or her party to serve in a non-partisan, symbolic role as representative of the Mongolian people. The President is the Head of State and Commander in Chief, while the Prime Minister leads the government and chooses people for Cabinet positions.
As an American, my understanding of parliamentary governance isn’t completely solid, even after five years in Malaysia, and a system that includes both a President and a Prime Minister is that much more confusing. But both the husband and I worked in government in the US, and watching Mongolia develop its young democracy is fascinating. In addition, the NGO where I work is conducting a series of training sessions for women from rural areas and underserved communities to expand their political participation. The sessions are funded only through 2014 however, and I just wrote an application for continued funding from the US State Department, under the Global Women, Peace and Security initiative. The State Department thinks, and I agree, that bringing more women into decision-making positions helps countries stabilize and develop in positive ways. And it’s interesting that Mongolia, which has more educated women than men and high levels of women in the workforce, lags way behind other countries and its own targets in women holding political office.
Sorry, where was I again? Right, how did that 2013 election go?
Generally, it went fine. As was carefully noted, fundamental human rights were respected during the campaign. The recommendations for improvement included some administrative/procedural fixes, but mostly concerned greater disclosure and transparency. A few examples:
- De-criminalize libel, because the current law limits free speech by journalists. Libel should be a civil offence instead of criminal.
- Review the legal framework regarding media generally, in order to strengthen journalists’ ability to provide unbiased and fair coverage of elections and candidates.
- Provide for disclosure of ownership of media outlets in laws pertaining to media.
- Reform liability for content, so that politicians and parties are held accountable for providing misleading content, rather than the media outlets themselves. (“I’m XYZ, and I approve this message.”)
I pause here to note that Mongolians widely distrust their national media, to the extent that the Mongolian government describes this mistrust as a problem in its annual reports to international development entities. Reporters are often paid by individuals or businesses to write particular stories, and there is very little fact-checking. People rely on what they hear from their friends and neighbors instead of news sources. So, there is a lot of room for improvement in media coverage of elections.
Additional recommendations include:
- Introduce more regulations regarding campaign financing, because there is a lack of transparency and oversight in this area.
- Allow more than just ten days for people to check their voter registration status.
- Allow prisoners to vote.
- Allow presidential candidates to run without a political affiliation. The ODIHR representatives noted this as particularly important to enable individuals to represent the country as a whole.
The round table discussion participants mostly agreed — or said they did — with these recommendations, and acknowledged that whoever has the most money wins. There was a lot of talk about improving procedures, and what surprised me, and I think surprised the ODIHR team, was a high level of concern about electronic vote counting machines. Not voting machines, just machines to count ballots; apparently, people do not trust the machines, thinking of them as unproven and confusing. The non-partisan/non-governmental Voter Education Center runs an information hotline and said they got some 1200 calls on election day (remember that the population is only about 2.7 million) asking for basic information, and many of those calls were from poll workers.
Which goes to show — principles and accountability matter in democracy, but low-level mechanics matter a lot too.