“We need a strong leader to run this country” is a sentiment that is heard quite often in Mongolia. People young and old, through all walks of life, seem to be enchanted with the idea of a strong “man’s man” who can get things done. Historically, Mongolia has seen great leaders, with the most obvious being Chinggis Khan, and leading up to Sukhbaatar. There have been great men and women who have led the Mongolian people through tough times. The question then arises: Do we need a strong leader now?
In favor of autocrats
There are many valid points and supporting historical evidence for how autocratic rule could potentially help Mongolia thrive. It could provide the Mongolian people with more stability, swifter decision making, a more unified and efficient government, and a decrease in corruption.
Historically, there have been instances where autocratic rule has been successful in stabilizing a country and taking its development to unprecedented levels. One example of this would be the three-decade reign of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Yew is credited as the founding father of the nation, and is also credited with transitioning Singapore from a third world country to a first world country in a single generation. Lee’s governance is considered to be an example of a benevolent dictatorship, where an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power but does so to benefit the population as a whole. Although not considered benevolent, General Park Chung-hee is another authoritarian leader credited with leading his country to exponential economic development. Under General Park, South Korea experienced economic growth dubbed “The Miracle on the Han River”. During this period, South Korea transitioned from a developing country to a developed country, becoming one of the Four Asian Tiger economies.
A recent example of the benefits of a strong leader, and one probably the most relevant to Mongolia’s political and economic climate, is the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev as President of Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev has been the leader of Kazakhstan since 1989, becoming the nation’s first president after it gained independence from the USSR in 1991. Mongolia and Kazakhstan are both former Soviet-influenced countries, with the former being a satellite state and the latter being a member of the Soviet Union. In 1991, when both gained independence from the Soviet Union, Mongolia pursued a more democratic government, while Kazakhstan has had the same leader since it declared its independence. According to World Bank data, in 1991, Kazakhstan’s GDP was 24.88 billion USD and Mongolia’s GDP was 2.3 billion USD. Comparing those numbers to 2013 statistics, the GDP of Kazakhstan skyrocketed to 243.77 billion USD, while Mongolia’s GDP had only climbed to 12.58 billion USD. Looking at these numbers, while both show significant growth in terms of the nations’ economies, it is clear that Kazakhstan has outpaced Mongolia in terms of economic development. Is Kazakhstan what Mongolia could have become if different leadership was at the helm?
Obviously, there are many factors that play into economic growth, but looking at the three cases mentioned can give us a glimpse of what Mongolia could have accomplished, and still could accomplish. It is hard to deny the potential growth that effective leadership under one person can accomplish. Some analysts argue that the transition to democracy in 1991 was too swift and delayed Mongolia’s modernization and growth. Many believe a strong, benevolent, authoritarian leader could have provided stability and economic growth after Mongolia gained independence.
In defense of democracy
When speaking about great leaders in our modern world, many Mongolians point to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who is seen as a prototypical macho, staunch head of state. This is not exclusive to our country, however, many people around the world share this sentiment about President Putin. Even Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has expressed support for Putin, calling him “a strong leader”. What many people fail to mention, and tend to ignore, is that most of these “strong” leaders tend to be autocratic in some shape or form. It is much harder – virtually impossible, to be a decisive leader like President Putin in a functioning democratic system.
When advocating for a strong leader, many tend to forget a consistent theme in authoritarian leadership. In most autocracies, the personal freedoms and rights of citizens are a low priority, or not prioritized at all depending on the country. Autocrats have one thing in common: their consolidation of power. In almost all cases of authoritarian rule, dissent is suppressed. Stemming from the effort to retain the power consolidated, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are usually restricted. On the surface, an autocratic leader can seem ideal, especially in a young democracy like Mongolia’s, which has yet to find its proper footing. When looking at cases like Singapore and South Korea, it can seem like autocracies can help speed up the process of economic development, and strengthen the rule of law and the institutions of government.
It is easy to focus on the economic development of Kazakhstan and conclude that Mongolia should have followed in the footsteps of Kazakhstan. However, it is important to take into account the serious human rights abuses that Kazakhstan has been accused of. According to the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch, “Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. In 2014, authorities closed newspapers, jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshippers for practicing religion outside state controls. Government critics, including opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, remained in detention after unfair trials. In mid-2014, Kazakhstan adopted new criminal, criminal executive, criminal procedural, and administrative codes, and a new law on trade unions, which contain articles restricting fundamental freedoms and are incompatible with international standards. Torture remains common in places of detention.”
It should be noted that the successes of Singapore and South Korea are rare. They seem to be the exception, not the rule. Take, for example, one of Africa’s most infamous dictators, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has been the leader of Zimbabwe since 1987, and under his rule, the government has been accused of several human rights abuses and has seen little to no economic growth. For every Lee Kuan Yew, there are 20 Robert Mugabes. Having autocratic leadership is rolling the dice on a country’s future, and the odds do not look good. The best-case scenario would be seeing a benevolent dictator rule a country for a certain period of time before smoothly transitioning power to an elected government. The worst-case scenario would see a corrupt leader with absolute political power only serve his interests. Historically speaking, the worst-case scenario is the most likely to become reality.
Autocratic leaders can start with good intentions, and even help countries develop, but as the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
The cost of our pursuits
It is easy to look at Mongolia’s political dysfunction, its lack of stability, and recent slow economic growth and wonder what Mongolia could have become under leadership that brought success to a country like Kazakhstan. It is possible that Mongolia could have fared better economically and transitioned more smoothly under authoritarian rule. However, only looking at the economic side of this equation ignores the other important aspects of a society. The rights and liberties that the Mongolian people enjoy in our democratic society would not be present.
We tend to forget how young Mongolia’s democracy is. Mongolia is in the early stages of being a democratic country. It is unrealistic to expect a democracy implemented just over two decades ago to function perfectly, when a country like the United States – which has been democratic for over 250 years – is still working out the kinks.
In order for a democracy to thrive, its foundation and institutions must be strong. We are just in the beginning stages of solidifying our institutions and creating a strong foundation for governance. We have seen, time and time again, that democratic countries with strong institutions and rule of law have been the most prosperous. Mongolia has a chance to become a thriving democracy. Yet, we must understand that democracy requires work. Democracy is like a delicate flower that requires intense planning and care. Mongolia did not revert to authoritarian rule after the first signs of trouble during its democratic transition, and the people owe it to themselves and future generations to see democracy through. This is the only way to secure people’s rights and liberties while continuing to pursue economic growth.