Tsartsaani Nüüdel (Mongolia)
|Author: Elizabeth Fox|
|Affiliation: the Department of Anthropology, University College London|
Original text: Elizabeth Fox, Department of Anthropology, University College London
Tsartsaani nüüdel refers to a distinctly Mongolian type of population movement that is arranged to influence the outcome of an election. The term most commonly refers to the practice of registering people to vote in a constituency where they are not in fact residents, in order to boost the votes for a specific candidate. The newly registered voters are usually provided with transportation on the day of the election and instructed to cast their votes for a particular candidate; they are then transported back to their home district, where their paperwork is re-registered to reflect their actual place of residence. Literally translated as ‘locust migration’, tsartsaani nüüdel consists of two Mongolian words, tsartsaa (царцаа) meaning locust or grasshopper, and nüüdel (нүүдэл) meaning migration or movement. In its formal meaning, tsartsaani nüüdel denotes a swarm of locusts that descends onto the land and devours all the good grass before moving on to new pastures.
While there is practically no documentation regarding the history of the term, the metaphorical allegory it evokes is clear: a sudden ‘swarm’ of voters is brought in from outside in order to influence an election through their numbers, ‘swallowing’ up the votes of genuine local residents. The metaphor of ‘eating’ (ideh means to eat) is widely used in Mongolia to refer to the misappropriation of funds and resources. However, a significant difference between a swarm of locusts and an invasion of voters is that, while locusts do not have a ‘boss,’ significant planning and organisation go into fixing voters’ paperwork and arranging their transportation. In other words, tsartsaani nüüdel is not a ‘spontaneous’ or ‘everyday’ practice. It is a top-down-directed strategy deliberately organised by elites in positions of power to influence elections in ways that will benefit themselves and/or their business or personal networks.
Tsartsaani nüüdel is found in both the private and the public spheres. For example, in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, workers in a local government office (horoo) may be instructed to re-register themselves in a neighbouring administrative district. Since the horoo is in charge of registering citizens’ residency papers, it is not difficult to organise this kind of tsartsaani nüüdel. Horoo leaders may engage (or be engaged) in tsartsaani nüüdel given that they have connections to political parties—unlike their workers who, as civil servants, are officially apolitical. Tsartsaani nüüdel is, however, most common in the private sector and can be remarkably ostentatious. It is not unheard of for the entire staff of a large company based in Ulaanbaatar to be temporarily ‘migrated’ to a remote countryside district hundreds of kilometres from the city centre. Company employees are housed for a few nights in the countryside and then returned from their ‘locust’ holiday migration. The bosses of such companies are generally well integrated into both the political and the business networks needed to facilitate these schemes.
Those who coordinate tsartsaani nüüdel clearly act because they believe they have something to gain from it, as do all those engaged in other election-related informal activities. Mongolia’s population of three million people is small, which means that the movement of even a relatively small group can potentially have an impact on an election. Nevertheless, one must ask why tsartsaani nüüdel specifically is practised in Mongolia. The answer to this question may be illuminated through a comparison with the informal and/or institutionalised practices known as gerrymandering and redrawing of constituency boundaries.
The overuse of the term ‘nomad’ and its associated concepts in the scholarship of Mongolia has been convincingly criticised by scholars such as Humphrey and Sneath. Even so, mobility remains a key feature of Mongolian society in both rural and urban contexts and the country has seen significant waves of urban-rural migration in recent years . As such, the state has experience of a population on the move and horoos in Mongolia daily serve large numbers of people seeking to register their migration between the city and countryside on temporary or semi-permanent bases. In this context, being able to identify tsartsaani nüüdel in the large volume of ‘formal’ movement may be difficult. In more sedentary societies, shifting votes from one constituency to another is not usually done through the movement of people. Instead, political parties seek to redraw boundaries in ways that provide them with demographic advantages. Gerrymandering and/or malapportionment are thus analogous to tsartsaani nüüdel, even though they work through an opposite mechanism: namely, stable constituents, mobile constituencies. Until just a few months before Mongolia’s parliamentary election of 2016, gerrymandering could not take place because of a 2006 electoral-reform law. Thus, to create advantageous demographic conditions, the people themselves had to be moved.
The implications of tsartsaani nüüdel are hard to pin down since there have so far been no academic studies of the specific practice. It is, however, widely discussed in the Mongolian language media and on online social networks. In June 2016, on the eve of the parliamentary election, statistics were released detailing a few tsartsaani nüüdel cases and identifying which districts were the ‘worst offenders’. While tsartsaani nüüdel remains a popular topic for discussion and is often used as a political weapon between rivals, by some accounts tsartsaani nüüdel activity peaked in 2008 and has been declining since. If its use has indeed been declining, this may be due to various electoral and bureaucratic reforms, such as the replacement in 2008 of registration papers by plastic passport cards. While the transition period between the two forms of identification may have been rocky – some citizens ended up with both the old and the new ID and were allegedly able to vote twice – the contemporary card that is linked to a countrywide electronic database goes some way to regularising population movements. Another reform has involved restricting the registration of migration around the time of an election.
It could be argued that the primary effect of tsartsaani nüüdel is not so much its concrete effect on elections. There are, of course, multiple formal and informal means by which elections are influenced in ‘functioning’ democracies, including Mongolia. Rather, tsartsaani nüüdel may be seen as having subtle but far- reaching effects. On the one hand, widespread discussion in the popular media means that most citizens are aware of tsartsaani nüüdel and many even take it for granted. Those involved in tsartsaani nüüdel schemes by their bosses rarely complain or resist. This is often due to the instability of the job market in Mongolia: employees rarely take action that might put them at risk of losing their jobs. It may also reveal deep-rooted concepts of hierarchy that infuse many spheres of Mongolian society. In a darker sense, taking tsartsaani nüüdel for granted and feeling unwilling or unable to extricate oneself from such schemes may point to a generalised apathy toward the democratic process and even the rule of law in Mongolia . In a context of economic stagnation and of stark and rapidly growing socio-economic inequality, tsartsaani nüüdel is often spoken about in the disappointed tones of those who feel left out of the benefits of moving ‘locusts’ from one place to another. Likewise, being involved as a ‘locust’ in such schemes may lead to confusion and insecurity regarding a central tenet of the democratic process: the secret ballot. Many who are instructed to vote for a particular candidate by their superiors feel that they cannot be sure of the privacy of their vote. Just as they do not resist being moved from place to place for fear of losing a precious job, likewise voters may not take the risk of voting for any other than the ‘suggested’ candidate in case they are found out.
In some cases, tsartsaani nüüdel may also be used to refer to the movement of candidates. If, for example, a political party feels that a member of parliament’s success has reached ‘saturation point’ in a particular district, s/he may be moved to ‘fresh pastures’ in another constituency. The assigning of candidates to constituencies is a complex process tightly controlled by political parties and rife with intense internal politicking. Both forms of tsartsaani nüüdel may provoke feelings of marginalisation among those who find themselves cast as locust pawns in the migratory games of the rich and powerful.
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