Thinking about democracy in Mongolia

ULAANBAATAR—Invited to participate in a forum in Mongolia this last week of August, I instantly said yes, motivated mainly by a wish to experience what it is like to stand on the main capital square of this vast landlocked Asian country, sometimes called the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.  Known for its cloudless skies, with an average of 257 cloudless days per year, Mongolia is like the end of the earth whichever direction one looks. The cold and sparse landscape is mesmerizing in its beauty and breadth.

The country’s infrastructure is still basic. Beyond Ulaanbaatar, its highways are few, and straight and narrow.  But the interesting places outside the capital city are accessible to travelers, who are basically invited to chart their own path on the still unmarked grassy steppes. Perfect for off-road riding, I thought to myself. At once, I imagined myself crossing the vast tundra on a motorcycle to search for birds in the countless river valleys that mark the Mongolian terrain.

But, I began to have second thoughts about going after I read the materials that had been sent to me by the organization behind the forum—the Sydney-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an intergovernmental organization that supports the building of democratic institutions.  I was asked to join a panel discussion on the role of social movements and leadership in the transition to democracy. Suddenly, I was no longer sure if I had anything hopeful or inspiring to say about the democratic project in the Philippines, given what has been happening in the country since the recent presidential election.

The purpose of the forum was to bring together individuals who had witnessed and participated in such transitions. The Philippines is generally recognized worldwide as one of the trailblazers of the democratization process because of the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986.  Countries like Mongolia and Indonesia had theirs not too long after. The trigger for the 1990 Mongolian peaceful democratic revolution was the collapse of Soviet socialism in 1989. For Indonesia, what precipitated the downfall of the corrupt and autocratic rule of General Suharto was the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

I met fellows of my generation from Nepal, Bhutan and Fiji who had inspiring stories to tell.  Hearing them, I felt ashamed of the times when I had silently doubted the authenticity of our own struggle and minimized its value as a beacon for other democratic transitions.

The highest moment in these transitions is the same everywhere—massive crowds gathering spontaneously in public squares, singing and dancing and listening to speeches, while waving banners that signal the rebirth of freedom. The hard work begins soon after. There is a need to bring the various stakeholders together so everyone starts on the same page. An interim leadership has to take command and direct the course of events leading to the writing of a new constitution and the conduct of general elections. The role of the military is weighed and defined during these crucial moments.

The international IDEA believes that the issues and questions that the key players in these democratic transitions are bound to face are often unique to the particular context from which they arise.  But, at the same time, they are also very much typical.  Other nations can learn a lot from the solutions that those who came ahead formulated with great difficulty and danger.

The growing list of titles published by the organization attest to the broad range of lessons it has synthesized from the experiences of various countries all over the world.  Examples of these are the following: “From Authoritarian Rule

Toward Democratic Governance,” “A Practical Guide to Constitution Building,” “Politics Meets Policies: The Emergence of Programmatic Political Parties”—and many more.

What they represent is a clear attempt to simplify the complex passage to democracy by breaking it down to its basic stages and corresponding tasks, and offering models from other countries.  But the overriding principle in this process is always to nudge the sovereign people to define their own substantive responses to the issues before them—in accordance with their own understanding of their nation’s needs.

One of the panelists in the forum observed that it takes about 40 years before a democratic system may be pronounced to be stable and fully institutionalized. I am not sure how the number was arrived at, but it prodded me to count.  Postwar Philippine democracy was only 26 years old when Ferdinand Marcos ended it in 1972.  The democracy we restored at Edsa in 1986 is 30 years old today.  That’s 10 years short of 40. Perhaps we should not be surprised then if the type of democracy we have put in place has remained fragile. It has strengthened oligarchical rule and failed to significantly improve the lives of the many.

Still, it remains a puzzle to me why we should choose a strongman to solve our problems at this time, rather than slowly build on the gains of a three-decade-long practice to create stronger and functional institutions.

The Ulaanbaatar forum left me with more questions than answers. But I came away from the discussions feeling renewed and hopeful.  For once I understood what Niklas Luhmann meant when he referred to democracy as “an evolutionary achievement of society.” A nation must grow into democracy. Unlike us, the Mongolians who spent centuries defending their land against their powerful neighbors know only too well how long it will take them still to complete their own democratic transition.

* * *