January 16, 2006

Mongolians brave snow to march for fallen government

By Eve Johnson and Mark Chisholm

ULAN BATOR (Reuters) - Hundreds of Mongolians braved ice
and snow and below-freezing temperatures on Monday to protest
in the capital's vast main square against parliament's
dissolution of the coalition government.

Police took up position in front of parliament as
demonstrators gathered, but activists were told they would be
arrested if they marched on the headquarters of the Mongolian
People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), where on Thursday
protesters broke windows and reportedly burned the party's

Mineral-rich Mongolia plunged into political crisis last
week when more than half the members of its cabinet, all from
the MPRP, resigned from the coalition government of Prime
Minister Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, of the Democratic party.

The MPRP, which ran the country as a Soviet satellite for
much of the 20th century and remains its strongest political
party, cited a decline in economic growth and rise in inflation
as reasons for its withdrawal from the government.

Elbegdorj said the MPRP may have wanted to derail his
administration's probes into "deep" official corruption.

"The old revolutionaries like Lenin were at least working
for the poor. But now, they (the MPRP) are working for
themselves for the purpose of becoming rich," said Otgonbataar,
45, a herdsman watching the demonstrations who said he
supported the protests but did not participate.

"What we need is a government that works for the poor."

Half of Mongolia's population are nomads tending camels,
ponies and sheep across the wind-swept steppe between Russia
and China. More than 35 percent of the country lived below the
poverty line in 2004, officials have previously said.


The MPRP is seeking to lead a new government, but with half
the 76 seats in the country's parliament, it is one vote short
of being able to nominate a new prime minister by itself.

"The MPRP has communicated its desire to form a government
of national unity and we have expressed our interest to have
all political parties represented in the new government,"
Foreign Minister Moenkh-Orgil of the MPRP said at a briefing
with heads of foreign missions in Ulan Bator.

Moenkh-Orgil said his party aimed to have a new prime
minister nominated by Friday and a cabinet formed by the end of
the following week.

Elbegdorj has said he will not fight parliament's decision,
but warned that the move could be destabilizing.

"The recent political decision of the MPRP to topple the
grand coalition government has immediately created a dangerous
situation in our country," Elbegdorj told Reuters.

Power shifts are not new in the country. Four governments
were formed in four years the last time the Democrats were in
power, between 1996 and 2000.

But the dissolving of Elbegdorj's government represented a
stark threat to democracy in Mongolia, which for years has been
among the most stable states in Central Asia, said Steve
Noerper, a professor at New York University.

"Mongolia may see a period of political turbulence that
could lay waste to a majority -- some suggest the entirety --
of its democratic gains," Noerper, a former Asia Foundation
representative in Ulan Bator, said in a statement.

President George W. Bush visited in November, praising the
country as a model of democracy in the region and thanking the
government for its support in the Iraq war.

Mongolia has sent about 120 soldiers to Iraq.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON)