Mongolians go to polls hoping for mining spoils

Mongolians voted in a presidential election, amid calls for a fairer distribution of the former Soviet satellite's spectacular mining wealth

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – Mongolians voted Wednesday, June 26, in a presidential election pitting the front-running incumbent against a champion wrestler and a woman, amid calls for a fairer distribution of the former Soviet satellite’s spectacular mining wealth.

The exploitation of Mongolia’s vast coal, copper and gold reserves has helped transform an economy once characterized by nomadic lifestyles not far removed from its famous empire-building hero, Genghis Khan, 800 years ago.

But rising inequality in the cities and environmental damage in rural areas are dominating the political debate, while recent falls in commodity prices and slowing demand in the key market of China have sparked uncertainty ahead of the election.

“I call upon citizens to participate actively in the election,” President Tsakhia Elbegdorj said after casting his vote.

“Let the blessings be upon the people,” added the incumbent, a former journalist who played a leading role when Mongolia peacefully threw off 70 years of communist rule in 1990.

Voters appeared to be out in force in the hours after polls opened at 7:00 am, with national television showing huge queues in some polling stations.

But at one site in the capital Ulan Bator visited by AFP, electronic voting machines were experiencing glitches, which meant voters could not be identified by their fingerprints.

Accusations of vote-rigging in 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in deadly riots, and led to Mongolia adopting an electronic voting system.

But General Election Commission chief Sodnomtseren Choinzon said the computer problems were confined to two voting stations and were “not widespread”.

Results of parliamentary polls last year were delayed by complaints about the electronic system. However, the election was largely considered a success.

Recent polls suggest that Elbegdorj, who became president in 2009 after twice serving as premier, will secure a second term to continue his policy of using foreign cash to drive the rapid development of Mongolia’s economy, which is galloping ahead at double-digit rates.

The growth has been boosted by the arrival of foreign mining giants, which have moved in to exploit huge and largely untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold that China and other customers need to fuel their industries.

A June 14-16 survey carried out by the Ulan Bator-based Sant Maral Foundation — a traditional stronghold of the ruling Democratic Party — suggested that 54 percent of Mongolians will vote for Elbegdorj.

Any candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote will claim victory and avoid a run-off on July 10.

Elbegdorj’s main challenger is likely to be Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, a champion wrestler and candidate from the opposition Mongolian People’s Party.

The third candidate, Natsag Udval from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, is reportedly the country’s first female presidential contender. The first elections after 1990 saw dozens of candidates standing.

Udval is a supporter of former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who is serving a two-and-half year jail term for corruption.

“I have voted for Udval because she is the first woman presidential candidate,” said Munkhuu Zul, a retired professor at the Mongolian National University, after voting in Ulan Bator, which was grey and colder than usual for the summer months.

He predicted a close vote.

“I think this time there will be a run-off election or public violence,” he said.

Both of Elbegdorj’s challengers want to amend the contract for the Oyu Tolgoi mine, amid concerns over the social inequality that has arisen from Mongolia’s breakneck development.

Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto and Canada’s Turquoise Hill Resources have jointly led construction of the $6.2 billion mine, which is expected to produce 450,000 tons of copper concentrate a year and generate up to one-third of government revenue by 2019.

The first shipments from the mine were blocked by the government days before the polls and still remain grounded, Rio Tinto spokesman Bruce Tobin told AFP, without giving a reason.

A previous delay earlier this month followed a government demand that Rio Tinto keep all export revenue in Mongolia, Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag said. The government has not commented on the recent delay.

Polls close at 10:00 pm (1400 GMT), and while results could arrive overnight, many pundits expect an official announcement later this week. –

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