07/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Witnessing Mongolia's Election

In the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, a large square building off the southeast side of Sukhbaatar Square in Mongolia's capital city of Ulaanbaatar, about 27 expats gathered with as many Mongolians last Friday to learn about being International Observers at Mongolia's Presidential election. Leading the presentation was Tim Meisburger, an elections expert based in The Asia Foundation's Bangkok office who has seen virtually every election in Asia unfold in-country for the last several years.

The world now knows that the Democratic opponent, Elbegdorj, beat out the incumbent People's Party representative, Enkhbayar, for the Mongolian Presidency on May 24th. It was a sunny day here in Ulaanbaatar, and I watched it happen, from start to close, as a member of a small international election-observing mission organized and funded by The Asia Foundation.

We were each paired with a Mongolian citizen after a registration process that required a passport photo and basic affiliation information beforehand. We were then outfitted with badges and Asia Foundation shirts that said "Election Observor" on the back in Mongolia's modern Cyrillic script. My partner, Oggii, was a quiet and pleasant woman who works in the same office I do at the Asia Foundation but on a vastly different project (I'm editing a short story translation; she'll start her biology PhD with a Fulbright grant in Wyoming this fall). Oggii, as the interpreter, was the one with the double-duty of both observing and interviewing voters up to and on election day. The interviews were given (but never in polling stations) according to a survey Tim wrote that meant to measure how safe and informed Mongolians felt in their right to vote, their government and their media.

As an observer, I wasn't sure how uneasy to feel about injecting myself into the thick of things, since last year's June 1st Parliamentary elections resulted in riots on Sukhbaatar Square, the deaths of five people, and the torching of a building or two. We were instructed to leave if a situation felt uncomfortable -- "that's all we need to know," said Tim, "because if you're not comfortable, that's not en environment conducive to a free and fair election."

The Mongolians I spoke with weren't worried; like England, Mongolia's Parliament holds much more power than nominal heads of state and so a presidential election carried with it less weight and passion. Observers were to visit five or six polling stations, which were public buildings like schools and fire stations, per pair. Oggii and I were at School #23 in Ulnaabtaar at 7am when the polls opened with a ceremonial showing of the big blue ballot-boxes, counting of absentee ballots, and singing of the National Anthem. Two agents from each of the two parties were present, a fact that was more or less true in every polling station Oggii and I visited (though there were many polling stations we didn't). Tim had mentioned during the preparation presentation with slight bafflement that while Mongolia's elections were on a Sunday and had the longest open hours in all of Asia -- 7am-10pm -- Mongolian voters still ran in to the polling stations at 9:59pm. The room, full of Mongolian interpreters paired with international observers from The Asia Foundation and the U.S. Embassy as well as local NGOs and Fulbright students, answered him resoundingly and in unison: "It's Mongolia!"

It's difficult to report on an experience as a member of the media that, during the experience itself, I was not allowed to comment to the media on. Election observers have a specific job: observe and report what they see at the polls and in the election environment to the coordinator, who formulates a report based on everyone's data, not just the reports of one or two of us. It defeats our purpose for one of us to say that what he or she saw was a fair and free election or that it wasn't; I was not present all day at each of the polling stations in all of Mongolia with eyes in the back of my head. I can say that Mongolians reported in past years that vote telegraphing, as it's called, resulted in the illegal buying of votes outside polling stations, and that we were instructed to keep our eyes peeled for that and any other obstructions to the democratic process.

I can also say that the day I observed was a peaceful one, which meant that what I noticed had more to do with admiring the commitment of the Mongolian people to a vote they haven't always had. "We did vote," explained the Arts Council of Mongolia chairwoman Ariunaa Tserenpil to me last week, "but we only had one box to check." The elder sector of the population of Ulaanbaatar came to vote in their very best deels, elder couples helping one another up the stairs of the school that served as their polling station. It wasn't unusual to see one or several pins connoting different lifetime achievements; many grandmothers boasted Communist-era Medals of Motherhood over their deels (Buddhist-symbol-embroidered robes that have not changed in their basic design since the days of Genghis Khan). What impressed me was that they looked wonderful; what astounded me was that each of these elderly people carried with them memories of a Mongolia where they could not exercise the freedom to vote between two different people to determine, as a populace, who would get the honor of being their President.

In the week since, I kept my eyes and ears open for post-election observation. There was something of a scandal when it was revealed that Enkhbayar's wife allegedly had a Swiss bank account with well over $1 billion in it, of course, but on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, things went on as usual. Late May proffered its usual hail, rain, snow, and high-80's sunlight in the same day. In the upscale Nayra Cafe, the largely foreign clientele were instructed that Thursday's internet password was "Elbegdorj." Ganbat, the author leading the latest effort at forming a Mongolian Center of International PEN, sported the inked forefinger of a citizen who had voted when I had lunch with him. Neither the top lawyer at the Ministry of Justice nor the young Mongolians I am friends with did much but shrug when I asked them to opine on the election results. "It's fine, but the other guy would have been just about as fine," seems the general opinion, as far as I can see. But then again, I have the eyes of only one person.