Politicians must experience living conditions of citizens hands-on!

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Mongolians have very low wages but consume expensive goods and food. We have more than 70 million livestock, but the price of meat is not affordable or reasonable. Although the government has made some efforts to revive the economy despite the COVID-19 pandemic and global geopolitical tensions, significant results have not been achieved in providing real support to citizens and businesses. This can be explained by the fact that policymakers and legislators do not know the current living situation of the general public.

As we all know and based on income and asset declarations, most parliamentarians and Cabinet members are rich, so they have the least experience and knowledge about issues concerning the most basic needs of people. Perhaps, the country would be better off if they get some firsthand encounters with the challenges people face every day.

A couple of figures are enough to show how Mongolians cope by. Mongolia’s national poverty rate has fluctuated since 2010. The poverty headcount rate declined sharply from 38.8 percent to 21.6 percent during the economic boom between 2010 and 2014. However, from 2016 to 2018, poverty reduction remained uneven, declining in rural but not in urban areas.

According to the World Bank and the National Statistics Office of Mongolia, 27.8 percent of Mongolians live below the poverty line as of 2020. It is estimated that about 903,400 people live in poverty.

Moreover, the average monthly expense of people is 238,800 MNT to 277,800 MNT in urban and rural areas, but the current minimum salary is just 420,000 MNT, or roughly 130 USD per month. This is equivalent to the hourly wage in some developed countries. Unfortunately, Mongolians are rewarded this much for their whole month’s work, so they can’t afford to think about living in a comfortable and safe environment, eating healthy food, or getting a quality education and comprehensive health care.

However, it’s become apparent that government officials aren’t aware that many people are struggling to make ends meet in the country. The words and actions of politicians who run the country today and work at the policy-making level are getting farther from the lives of the people. None of them have experienced poverty as political offices most often come through compounding connections where above-average-income families, influential college peers, work associates, and other social and religious communities all provide a network of resources that ensures the connected become the elected.

Therefore, many lawmakers and Cabinet members live in wealthy enclaves, get expensive, high-quality healthcare services, and send their children to private or international schools. As a result, Mongolian politicians are often woefully out of touch with the economic reality faced by those living in poverty – or even those struggling to stay out of it.

In particular, legislator S.Byambatsogt even compared food prices in Germany to those in Mongolia. Of course, he did not take into account the salary difference. In fact, he seemed to be “proud” that the life of Mongolians has reached a level comparable to the world level. But many people took this as an “insult” as it does not correspond to real life.

Member of Parliament Kh.Bolorchuluun also said, “Mongolians buy food at the cheapest price, a loaf of bread costing just over 1,000 MNT.” According to him, Mongolians buy bread and meat at the lowest prices in the world and enjoy the most luxurious life in the world. However, it’s long been since the price of a loaf of bread surpassed 2,000 MNT, which is twice higher than what politicians think it to be.

They may not know the current living situation of the people, but it makes it worse when they feign to know it. Officials who don’t know the prices of bread, meat, eggs, and other common consumer goods but dare to criticize people for obesity and high consumption, need to personally experience life in the outskirt of Ulaanbaatar for a few days. This may help them get a reality check or else these politicians who think based on their own lives and perspectives will continue to irritate the people. For instance, lawmaker N.Uchral, who is one of the wealthiest politicians with a big family business, made a remark and drew a lot of criticism.

In specific, he said, “There are a lot of families living on VAT refunds. People wait for VAT refunds. Therefore, there is a need to increase VAT refunds. We are planning to initiate a bill to increase the VAT refund rate to up to 4 percent on consumer goods such as milk, bread, flour, rice, meat and fuel. This is seen as the right solution in the current context where inflation is having a negative impact on livelihoods. However, refunds for non-essential products such as alcohol and tobacco should be zero.”

In reality, hundreds of thousands of people receive a very small amount of money in the form of VAT refunds. Some people aren’t using the VAT receipt application, Ebarimt, because they have no access to the internet or even smartphones. 

In addition, during a recent parliamentary plenary session, legislator P.Anujin criticized, “I with looked after my baby at the hospital for three days and returned to my work. It is one matter to look at the issue of your constituency through the window of your home and ask questions at a parliamentary session. At the public hospital, parents are wandering about holding their sick children because they do not know what to do. Why is this issue not being discussed?” 

In this way, she announced that she had no clue about the workload of public children’s hospitals. In fact, as a member of Parliament, she should have studied and learned about children’s hospitals, the environment in which children grow up, and the current issues faced in society.

Moreover, Speaker of Parliament G.Zandanshatar called on people to live frugally. More specifically, he noted, “Government is not an almighty god. The state budget is limited. The amount of money and foreign exchange earnings is limited. Therefore, our people need to move to austerity mode and understand the shadow of global events in Mongolia. Political forces also need to be realistic without politicizing the country’s issue.”

After his untimely and unrealistic call drew considerable criticism and resentment, he responded, “I did not say that only citizens should save. My speech was omitted, so people misunderstood it. In fact, I said that everyone should save.”

Instead of urging citizens to move to austerity, he should have called on Parliament, the Office of the President, and the Ulaanbaatar Mayor’s Office to moderate their expenses. But the speaker is, in fact, an example of extravagance. In particular, taking advantage of the pandemic situation, Parliament Speaker G.Zandanshatar issued Resolution No. 42 of 2020, which raised the salaries of some government officials. Specifically, under the resolution, the President’s Office, Parliament’s Office, and Cabinet Secretariat got salary raises of 50 to 270 percent in the form of coefficients. Coefficient means that the base salary is multiplied by the number of coefficients. For example, if the basic salary of the speaker of the Parliament was 2 million MNT, it has been multiplied by 3.03 to 6.06 million MNT.

In general, there are many politicians who get angry and scold others in front of the camera about current issues but do not offer any solution. For instance, Chairman of the Democratic Party caucus in Parliament D.Ganbat justified his action of distributing money to citizens last winter, saying, “Lawmaker N.Uchral sent ul boov (Mongolian traditional pastries) during Tsagaan Sar and I distributed my own money. It is a personal matter. It doesn’t matter what a person does.” However, parliamentarians are not considered individuals. Naturally, everyone who enters politics, holds a certain position, and represents the people should lead society in the right direction. In that sense, they need to always think rationally and avoid making mistakes.

On top of that, politicians have been saying things that are completely different from reality much more in recent years. International researchers pointed out that one of the factors contributing to social unrest is the reckless words of politicians who are out of touch with life and their deliberate acts to cause public confusion. This was justified by Mongolian youths who volunteered to march earlier this month. However, our politicians are not minding their speech or showing any signs of paying attention to their behavior. Or maybe they are interested in working with this tactic, so that they can get more attention and attract the cameras.

Philosopher and lecturer S.Molor-Erdene once said, “Politicians must be highly-educated and be the best to lead us properly. The Constitution of Mongolia does not provide for the appointment of an educated person to a responsible position. So the government is ‘bankrupt’ today.” 

Anyway, without a speck of poverty in their lives, politicians don’t come out to witness or understand the realities people face – and perplexingly, only a few observers seem to advocate that this needs to change. In other words, we cannot expect humane policy without representatives who understand, and investigate the current situation that they control.

Therefore, politicians should personally encounter the circumstances people face, observe the trials of those most in need, and most importantly, experience the conditions themselves. Living in a suburban area, rationing their food and eating worse quality food leave fundamental physical impressions that can help them make decisions that benefit their citizens. This might inform members of Parliament and Cabinet who believe that individual initiative is all that’s needed to overcome poverty.

Misheel Lkhasuren