BEIJING/ULAANBAATAR -- Voting in Mongolia's presidential election began Wednesday. Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, who led the government as prime minister until January, is running on the ruling Mongolian People's Party's record in extending public aid through the economy's pandemic-driven slowdown against two challengers.
The role of foreign investors in the development of the country's mineral resources remains a key issue as well. Results are expected by Thursday.
Khurelsukh, 52, has used the extensive organization of the People's Party, which ruled as the Communist Party before, to consolidate votes, especially in rural areas.
As prime minister, he pushed through a law canceling loans taken out by 230,000 retirees against the value of their retirement savings. The new national budget pushed through by his party included grants of 1 million tugrik each to retirees who had not taken out loans. The government has also provided new child and electricity subsidies and stimulus payments, and extended low-cost loans to businesses.
Calling on Mongolians to see themselves as the true owners of the country's natural resources, Khurelsukh has signaled he would take a strong stance in negotiating a revised deal with Rio Tinto for the expansion of the vast Oyu Tolgoi copper mine and other agreements with foreign investors.
He is up against 57-year-old Sodnomzunduin Erdene of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition bloc, and 62-year-old Dangaasurengiin Enkhbat, who is supported by an alliance of the National Labor Party, the Mongolian Social Democratic Party and the Justice Party. Both opposition candidates are former members of the State Great Khural, the country's parliament.
Under the slogan "Mongolia without Dictatorship," Erdene has emphasized his respect for freedom and other values, but he has been undermined by a schism that saw a rival Democratic Party faction unsuccessfully seek a place on the ballot for its own candidate. The party's Khaltmaagiin Battulga now holds the presidency, though the group only holds nine of 76 legislative seats.
Enkhbat, who helped bring internet service to Mongolia and founded an IT company, has campaigned under the slogan "Mongolia can do it." He is believed to be gaining support among younger voters, especially in Ulaanbaatar, based on his vision of bringing technological innovations to bear on public issues and development problems. He has spoken of connecting the scattered nomad families of the steppe to the internet and bringing English classes and quality education to the countryside.
"I want to vote for Enkhbat but Khurelsukh is strong, and he is surrounded by many top people of the health sector," said medical researcher Serjee Munkhchuluun. "He is capable of investing in the health sector, so I should vote for him."
Despite its cold climate and long border with China, Mongolia saw no locally transmitted COVID-19 cases until last November, though its economy was badly affected by curtailed transport links with its southern neighbor. The virus' spread accelerated rapidly beginning in April, but officials are hopeful a broad vaccination drive will bring the outbreak under control.
"Some small business owners like me will cast a blank vote because none of the candidates have an agenda to help the SMEs that experienced great loss during the lockdowns," said Damba Batkhorloo, a stall owner in Ulaanbaatar.
More than 90% of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine and three quarters are fully vaccinated thanks to supplies through the World Health Organization's Covax initiative and shipments from China and India. Russia has also agreed to ship doses.
Mongolia has focused on balancing its diplomacy, using Russia, with which it maintains friendly relations, to avoid getting too wrapped up with China, its largest trading partner. That foreign policy is expected to continue if Khurelsukh proves victorious. Some believe that a victory by Enkhbat, who is said to be fluent in English, could lead to a greater U.S. presence as Mongolia develops a "third neighbor" policy that does not overly rely on China or Russia.
This is Mongolia's eighth presidential election since it began to democratize in 1990. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two will advance to a runoff election. The last runoff was in 2017, when Battulga won the presidency.
As the head of state, the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces and also has veto power over parliament. Mongolia's constitution was amended last year to allow presidents a maximum of one six-year term from two four-year terms. Changes the year before reduce the president's powers, especially in relation to appointments.
During the election, all candidates shared their views on economic policies, such as how to best utilize foreign capital for resource development and employment measures.