Mongolian voters head to the polls amid economic uncertainty

A mother kissing her son at a polling station in Ulaanbaatar on June 29.
A mother kissing her son at a polling station in Ulaanbaatar on June 29.PHOTO: REUTERS

ULAN BATOR (AFP) - Mongolians travelled to the polls Wednesday (June 29) to elect a new national government as the country struggles to monetise its vast natural resources amid slumping demand for commodities from its largest trade partner China.

The contest largely comes down to a choice between the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Mongolian People's Party.

On both sides campaigns have been heavy on bromides about economic development but light on concrete proposals for tackling voter concerns, including improving the country's educational and health care systems.

In the lead up to the election, voters expressed their frustration with the country's poor governance and weakened economy, and many said they feared a repeat of 2008 riots that followed claims of election tampering.

"(Politicians) have to fulfil all their promises. There are so many things to demand," said Ganbaatareen Jargal, a 25-year old construction worker, as he watched a campaign rally Saturday in a slum district bordering the capital city Ulan Bator.

Although a trained mining engineer, Jargal said he has been forced to work on building sites due to the government's failure to expand the resource sector.

Slowing growth in China, by far Mongolia's biggest trade partner, have sent commodity prices collapsing, while political disagreements about who should own the country's resources - and at what price - have stymied project development.

China's economy grew 6.9 per cent last year, the worst since 2009, meaning less demand for raw materials such as coal and copper.

Outside the capital, trucks with mobile ballot boxes crisscrossed the vast steppe delivering the polls to voters - often sick or elderly - unable to make the trek themselves, while herders and others streamed to gers - traditional Mongolian homes - set up by the government for country dwellers.

But although Mongolia has made enormous efforts to ensure participation in even the most isolated areas, enthusiasm for voting has waned in the 26 years since the young democracy threw off the yoke of Soviet influence.

Turnout has declined each election cycle, a trend that experts attribute to increased skepticism of the country's political class.

"As the economic crises persist, there's considerable mistrust in the political system," Morris Rossabi, an expert on Mongolia at Columbia University, told AFP, adding that voters are "facing increasing disillusionment with political parties".

In May, just weeks before the election, a court ruling also changed the electoral system from a proportional set-up to a plurality-based one, severely limiting the ability of any other than the two major parties from participating in the country's governance.

The change raised allegations of a backroom power sharing agreement between the two parties.

According to polling by the International Republican Institute, over 60 per cent of Mongolians feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Respondents said they would vote for the party that could best deliver economic development and jobs.

But some voters are simply resigned to keep the status quo for practical reasons.

"I'm going to vote for the Democratic Party," said Jargal, the construction worker.

"If another party wins, they have to finish the job that the DP started... they're going to waste four years, complaining that we had to restart everything because the DP made such a mess".