The hiring of a US public relations firm by the Mongolian president’s party ahead of June elections has sparked political uproar in the country after Foreign Lobby Report first revealed the existence of the contract on Wednesday.
At a session of parliament today, lawmakers grilled the Democratic Party of Mongolia (DP) official who signed the $50,000 contract with Washington firm the DCI Group, calling it a “very serious matter” that required investigation. The party hired the firm for two months starting April 12 to promote President Khaltmaa Battulga‘s party as the “vanguard of Mongolian democracy” ahead of the June 9 election.
The law on presidential elections “stipulates that ‘it is prohibited to receive donations and support from foreign countries or foreign organizations, international organizations, organizations with foreign investment, and state and local self-governing organizations’,” parliament member Tsend Munkh-Orgil said, according to the iToim news site. “How does this agreement comply with this provision? Is it possible to commit such a clear violation of the law?”
The party vice-chairman Tuvaan Tsevegdorj, whose name is on the contract, responded by questioning his accuser’s facts. Details of the contract were shared this week with the Department of Justice when DCI registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“The DP did not pay even $50,000 or $50,” Tuvaan reportedly answered. “Member Munkh-Orgil must be mistaken. If you’re wrong, say so. We are not such a rich party.”
The fracas comes as the president issued a decree on Sunday, April 18, to dissolve the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) while insisting that he should be able to run again despite a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to one four-year term. If allowed to run for re-election, Battulga is expected to face Khurelsukh Ukhnaa of the MPP, which won a landslide victory in last year’s legislative elections.
DCI sent a press release to US media on Tuesday defending the dissolution as a bid to “safeguard the sovereignty and democracy of the country” and accusing the MPP of having “unconstitutionally excluded President Battulga from the June 9 presidential election ballot.”
“MPP’s attempt to concentrate all political powers while militarizing its party has created a worrying prospect for Mongolia’s democracy,” the DCI press release states.
The firm also distributed a press release stating the Democratic Party would be boycotting parliament to protest what it calls “illegal changes to the election law” as well as an op-ed from experts at Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Foundation decrying Battulga’s ban as “undermining the democratic process.”
Members of Battulga’s own party have also been critical of the DCI contract. Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a human rights campaigner and former member of parliament, told Foreign Lobby Report she was surprised to see that the party had hired DCI.
“We were surprised that a Mongolian political party hired a foreign lobbying company during election time,” she told Foreign Lobby Report. “Never openly have we had that kind of experience before. Probably secretly politicians have hired (lobbyists) before, but openly none had been reported, so that’s why it was so surprising. The public also criticized it.”
Julian Dierkes, an expert on Mongolian politics and associate professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, questioned the opposition’s claims that a US-focused PR campaign would be illegal.
“It doesn’t make sense for it to be illegal,” Dierkes told Foreign Lobby Report. “This contract, for all we can tell, is not intended at swaying Mongolian voters.”
After losing parliamentary elections last year, the Democratic Party dissolved into factions with several members contesting for leadership. Tuvaan, whose name is on the contract along with that of DCI CEO Douglas Goodyear, is associated with Battulga, suggesting the PR push aims to legitimize the president’s efforts to stay in the race.
“My interpretation is that if you get [top US media] to write about one of these things, it’s going to get reflected into the Mongolian discussion and it’ll have that stamp of approval from international media,” Dierkes said.
The DCI contract comes as another Mongolian politician has launched his own public relations campaign denouncing Battulga.
Amsterdam & Partners registered as a foreign agent earlier this year for former Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg to defend him against what it calls “fabricated” criminal charges in a years-old mining corruption case. The firm has launched an international pressure campaign on Battulga to drop the charges.