The inauguration of President Joe Biden undoubtedly marks the return of the natural order, of the mighty and in many ways, admirable, US, to the world fold, proclaiming to friends and foes that the rule of law, respect for human rights, multilateralism and democratic principles all matter again.
It’s a dramatic reversal – suddenly the US is sitting at the table again and selling its tradition and principles of egalitarianism and fairness across the globe. Climate change, aid, health, alleviation of wealth inequality – these are all back on the Oval Office agenda. With them, too, comes the vision of good governance that an America without Donald Trump can represent. Nations who care about these things have a leader once more.
Except it seems that not everyone is so impressed. In Africa, in Uganda, the fiercely contested ballot triumph of 76-year-old Yoweri Museveni, giving him a sixth term in power, was accompanied by violence, harassment of opposition candidates and the blocking of media debate. The controversy in Uganda came after another longtime incumbent, Victor Orban in Europe, in Hungary, also cracked down on journalists and free expression as he sought another election victory.
Similarly, in Belarus, journalists covering protests against President Lukashenko have been arrested on concocted charges that could see them receive long jail terms. In Russia, opposition marches are being met with brutal police force. In Myanmar, a military coup has taken place. Taking his cue is our own President Battulga. The contagion of authoritarianism is crossing continents, and has come here, to Mongolia.
In a move resembling Trump’s insurrection on Capitol Hill, Battulga supporters were incited to take part in demonstrations in our capital’s main square and demand the resignation of the current government.
Learning from Trump’s mistake, the president refrained from speaking directly, and used an emotive video of a young woman suffering from COVID-19 leaving the maternity ward of a hospital without winter clothing to bring people out on to the streets. Until then, the government had been lauded for its handling of the pandemic, despite our country’s lack of resources. Only two deaths from the virus had been recorded.
The next 24 hours saw feverish political activity, resulting in the resignation of our popular prime minister, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, and his entire cabinet, and the appointment of a new premier selected by President Battulga.
Having successfully seen off one potential candidate for the June presidential elections in the shape of the outgoing Khurelsukh, the president promptly accused a second potential opponent in the respected former prime minister, Batbold, of corruption. The allegation is widely seen as the moment when the mask slipped to reveal the architect of a sustained dirty tricks campaign in this presidential election year against Batbold.
Battulga has used the same standard playbook as other foreign autocrats, such as Museveni and Orban, to stay in power. During his time in office, Battulga has made wholesale changes to the judiciary, appointing a new attorney general, deputy attorney general, and judges. The judiciary is in his pocket, peopled by placemen completely loyal to him. In Parliament, the outgoing minister of justice has accused the president of summoning judges to his office to place political opponents on a ‘hit list.’
The list comprised 14 high-profile opposition politicians who are currently behind bars, having faced kangaroo courts and been denied legal representation. They are joined by a dozen journalists similarly sentenced and treated for reporting critically on President Battulga.
Battulga has made no effort to conceal his ultimate goal. He is seeking to change the constitutional law that restricts him from running for another term in the June election. With a tame judicial establishment, he stands a reasonable chance.
The response of the Biden administration to authoritarian leaders such as Museveni, Orban, Lukashenko, and our own Battulga will set the tone for a new era that could see renewed US influence. Should political repression turn bloody, the US and its EU allies and fellow promoters of democracy have tools at their disposal, such as the Magnitsky Act to target the abuse of human rights by those in power.
How President Biden chooses to react will lay down a marker elsewhere in the world, in Russia, Taiwan, the other contested parts of Asia-Pacific, and the powder keg that is the Middle East.
Mongolia has never been more central.
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