Mongolian democratic forces seize power on Asia's steppes Defeat of ex-Communists ends 75 years of iron rule, raises regional concerns

July 02, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- When the first votes came in early yesterday morning, few dared to believe it; by the evening, few could contain their amazement: After 75 years of purges, genocide and a half-hearted conversion to democracy, Mongolia's former Communist Party was finally out of power.

The vote overturned all the conventional wisdom -- that the ex-Communists were too well organized, that they had too much money and that Mongolians were too conservative to toss them out. At best, the Democratic Union Coalition had expected to win 26 of the 76 seats in parliament, or Great Hural, which would allow it to deny the former Communists the two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation.

But with almost all the results in yesterday, the democratic forces won 48 of the parliamentary seats, leaving the former Communists with 23. Turnout was 87 percent.

In a weedy square outside the coalition headquarters, a festive atmosphere prevailed as word of the results spread. Crowds of supporters cheered when a candidate left or arrived.

A complete vote tally is due Thursday, but results will not be completely official until they are presented to the president in about two weeks.

The break with the past is dramatic and profound for Mongolia and its neighbors. Although its boasts 13 times more cattle than its population of 2.2 million, Mongolia is a huge country -- about the size of Alaska -- that lies wedged between two superpowers, China and Russia. It is the land from which Genghis Khan ventured forth to conquer an empire seven centuries ago.

Mongolians' rejection of their longtime ruling party may arouse the 4 million Mongolians living across the border in China's Inner Mongolia province. Chinese officials say they are already engaged in a fierce struggle to combat resurgent nationalism, which in part is fueled by a desire to reunite Mongolia. With the fall of the Mongolian former Communists, who retained ties to the ruling Chinese Communists in Beijing, contacts may grow between the two groups of Mongolians.

Both Inner and Outer Mongolia were Chinese colonies for the 200 years leading up to 1911, when Outer Mongolia broke free and set up a kingdom. But a Communist revolution in 1921 deposed the monarch and turned Mongolia into a Soviet puppet that mimicked its elder brother in massacring a huge percentage of its population.

Run by dour party bureaucrats, Mongolia became one of the most remote and inaccessible countries in the world. Its nomadic herders still provided the country's economic backbone, but it was no longer the colorful country of shamans and khans who once ruled the world's largest empire.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 opened Mongolia to the world, but left it bankrupt. It stayed afloat only by accepting Western aid and promising to move toward democracy and free markets. Parliamentary elections in 1992 were judged to be largely fair, but an unusual voting system of multi-seat constituencies gave the People's Revolutionary Party 70 of 76 seats in parliament, although it won only 60 percent of the popular vote.

Voting reforms last year gave Mongolia a simpler U.S.-style voting system with one representative picked from each district. Still, the People's Revolutionary Party seemed to be in control. The party, having renounced its Communist ideology and portraying itself as group of market-oriented technocrats, retained a strong organization, control of major media and support among nomadic herders worried about change.

That seemed to ensure them another victory, but in the week before Sunday's vote, talks with herders in remote regions showed that even they were fed up with the ex-Communists. Although recent economic growth has been positive, fuel prices were set to double after the election and corruption was %J worrying everyone.

"I will vote for the democrats," said Dawa, a herder near Mongolia's ruined ancient capital of Kharakorum. Many Mongolians have no first names. Some simply have first initials. "It is time to change the government. I do not know why. It is simply time."

In a country where a majority of the population is under age 25, age played a role, said David Hirschmann, a professor from the American University in Washington, who was in Mongolia to assess its transition to democracy.

"The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party were the old people, and everyone thought they'd messed things up here for so long that the youngsters should have a try," he said.

The democrats also benefited from numerous foreign advisers, especially Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which broke the rules of most aid agencies in openly supporting one side.

The International Republican Institute also suggested tactics, such as having the democratic forces offer voters a clear set of priorities and promises, along the lines of the Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America," which helped win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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