In the 2015 Referendum, Mongolian citizens cast votes on how they would like to move forward with increasing the value of Mongolian currency. Their options were to either expand mining projects in the Oyu Tolgio mines, or discipline the economy through controlled spending.
Problems and Purpose
The problem that is addressed through this referendum was deciding how Mongolian citizens would choose to discipline their economy. The options they were presented with were to expand the mining contracts in the Oyu Tolgio mines of Mongolia or discipline their economy through controlled spending. Although government and business entities had made their decisions and were ready to sign the contracts it was clear that there was no consensus among the citizens on how to proceed. Arguments between citizens over whether or not the government should finish existing projects before signing contracts for new projects began to raise questions over who was entitled to speak on or protest this issue as well as who is eligible to enter into those contracts. Citizens feared that the economy could collapse if actions were not taken to cause inflation of the Mongolian currency. Citizens also feared losing land that could be purchased or used by nomadic farmers for herding if mining contracts were expanded.
Background History and Context
Mongolia’s first referendum was a constitutional referendum that was held in 1945, when citizens voted to officially declare Mongolia independent from China. The 1945 referendum is remarked by Mongolians as the “first democratic vote”. During the time leading up to the 1945 referendum there were new polling places established and voter education classes available to a population that was largely illiterate. Although the credibility of the results from the 1945 referendum has been disputed the results were accepted as valid. Mongolia began holding its first official democratic elections in 1992; however, it would be another 23 years before another referendum would be called. In 2015 tensions were rising between the Mongolian government which was ready to enter into mining contracts that would increase the mining of gold and copper from the Oyu Tolgio mines located in the Gobi desert, and the citizens who were concerned over how project expansions would affect landownership, herding spaces, and their mining rights. The Mongolian government believed that by expanding the mining contract to include a 6 billion dollar investment from foreign entities they would certainly stimulate the economy and increase the value of the Mongolian dollar. This called for a mandatory legislative referendum where government officials were charged to let the citizens decide how they would increase the value of their currency. During the referendum that was done via text message over a four-day period from January 31-February 3rd 2015 citizens voted whether or not to expand mining projects. According to Khan, referendums have been attempted via text before in places such as “post-Soviet democracies” like Kyrgyzstan in 2011, and in Armenia in 2014. However, those referendum faced the issue of low voter participation, even if many voters had given their word to participate in advance. The poor participation in those text message referendum is also reflected in the 2015 referendum of Mongolia.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The 2015 referendum was initiated by Mongolia’s Former Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg and funded by the Mongolian government.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Recruitment from this process involved acquiring access to all active cell numbers in Mongolia. The number of cell numbers that were attached to SMS cards eligible to receive the text message regarding the referendum was a total of 3 million. The recruitment process was very broad and open to all citizens who were of the age to have a cell phone contract. Citizens who had recently acquired cellphones or changed their numbers did not receive text messages.
Methods and Tools Used
The 2015 referendum was announced in January 2015 via SMS. The SMS sent out to Mongolian citizens asked if they preferred a period of “foreign investment” or a period of “austerity”. The Mongolian government made sure to specify that they vote was not politically binding and that it would only be used to gauge public opinion of the expansion of the mining contracts, although it was later framed as a legitimate vote by “national and international observers” The 3 million SMS cards were sent the two options up for vote and encouraged to text their response of either “approve” or “refrain” to a given number. Option one involved increasing the value of Mongolian currency through the expansion of mining projects in the Oyu Toglio. Option two involved citizens limiting their consumption and spending in order discipline the economy. The referendum was also mentioned on television by Saikhanbileg, when he briefly mentioned how he believed that it was good for citizens to have an input on how problems should be solved.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Information about the referendum went out via text message over a short period of time. There was also mention of it via Twitter so that citizens could know to be on the look out for a message from their government officials regarding the issue up for vote. Citizens also tweeted in screenshots of their votes and voters from both rural and urban areas shared their opinions of both options through their Twitter platforms.Of the 3 million only 356,841 votes were cast and only 302,008 were counted. Public opinion was not solidified as a result of this referendum. Although 56% of the Mongolian citizens did vote to expand the mining contracts some may have done so out of fear of that their economy would crash during a period of “austerity.” Some citizens did take the time out to debate the available options on twitter using the hashtag #15151111. Using this hashtag voters chimed in on their support for either option. Others tried to sway the outcome by encouraging voters to vote for both options one and two in protest over a lack of a third option, these votes were not counted in the final tally. Some Mongolian tweeter talked about the satire of voting through SMS, and others completely rejected the referendum and questioned its legality. The results were announced through national and international media outlets.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Although the citizens voted to expand the mining projects in the Oyu Tolgio there was much talk about the limited choices that the citizens were given. There were many who wanted a third option made available for those who did not agree that either option would be a viable solution. There were also some who felt that the phrasing of the second question hinted at economic failure that many citizens did not want to risk having to live through in the event that limits on consumption and spending had negative affects. The approved mining expansion was implemented the following year resulting in 6 million dollars in foreign investment.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The 2015 referendum showed that the Mongolian government is open to having two-way communication between government officials and citizens affected by policies. The main take away when comparing the 2015 referendum to the referendum of 1945 is that during the latter, citizens were more equip to make an informed decision. During the 1945 referendum Mongolian citizens had time to prepare. Although they were largely illiterate they felt that it was important that they get informed about what they would be tasked to vote on. The 2015 referendum did not involve as much planning. It was put on in a relatively short amount of time with little information given to the citizens before hand. Although the Mongolia of 2015 boasts a 97% literacy they still did not have the time to make sure that either the citizens were informed about the options before them, or that the options were written clearly and fairly. One great victory of the 2015 referendum of Mongolia is that it empowered citizens to use social media platforms such as twitter to spread information and encourage participation. However, the poor participation rates showed that when votes happen too quickly, without time for much deliberation between citizens who will be affected the legitimacy of the vote could come into question. Although technology is wonderful for getting people who reside in rural or nomadic communities to interact with public policy it does not take the place of face-to-face deliberation or voter education classes.
 Hahn, A. (2018). Mongolia’s 2015 referendum via text messaging: Engaging rural and nomadic citizens in public screen seliberation. International Journal of Communication, 12, 4379-4440. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/6134
The original submission of this case entry was written by Shandrea Murphy-Washington, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The views expressed in the current version are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.