ULAANBAATAR -- Mongolia will hold its general parliamentary elections on Wednesday after political parties wrangled over whether to postpone the quadrennial event, indicating the ruling party's desire to consolidate its grip on power before the coronavirus pandemic sinks the economy.
Thanks to early border closures starting in January, the Asian nation -- sandwiched between China and Russia -- has reported no internal transmissions of COVID-19 and has just 215 cases so far, all imported. The ruling Mongolian People's Party, led by Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, holds 65 seats of the 76-seat parliament and hopes to make the most of the relatively successful virus response to solidify support at the polls. In short, it wants the elections finished before any economic turmoil, which could come as early as the end of the year.
But President Battulga Khaltmaa of the main opposition Democratic Party had urged lawmakers to delay the election until next year, claiming the country should not risk public health during the pandemic and that fair elections could not be guaranteed, as few foreign observers would be able to attend.
Citing the virus, authorities have kept Mongolia's borders closed even to most citizens stuck overseas and social distancing rules continue to curtail business. At the same time, politicians -- the prime minister included -- are hugging and shaking hands with supporters despite government restrictions to the contrary, which has business owners crying foul. And while infections remain low, the virus poses bigger dangers to the overall economy, especially in coal exports, many of which go to China. In the first five months of 2020, lower demand and prices, along with border closures, caused coal exports to sink to 6.2 million tons, compared with 15 million tons in the same period last year.
During the campaign season, the ruling MPP, which previously adhered to communism, has said the country needs to be united, while the opposition has promised that every family will benefit from economic growth. But there really is no major difference in platforms: Both parties promise jobs and to boost the economy.
"Mongolia needs to look beyond mineral exports," said Angar Davaasuren, media commentator and former CEO of the Mongolian Stock Exchange. "Unfortunately, the candidates are not talking about how we can diversify our economy and reduce dependence on China. Due to our electoral system, it's better for candidates to promise to build a road or a well in their district, instead of looking for a long-term economic development."
The country had held elections under a single-seat constituency system. But this time two million eligible voters are casting votes under a new system called multi-member plurality, or block voting, with two to three members of parliament elected from a single constituency.
Creating jobs and ending poverty has been the main agenda for the last 30 years. However, the poverty rate is 28%, which means that about one in every three Mongolians is poor. But support from this demographic can often be gained by promises of direct gifts from candidates. This is technically illegal but fairly common, as evidenced by the numerous gifts, from cash and cooking flour to bikes and iPhones.
Election rallies are being held in every part of the vast, sparsely populated country, but social distancing has been mandated by the government, with gatherings of more than 30 people are prohibited, and masks are mandatory. Candidates are required to distribute masks at rallies and check temperatures.
However, the new normal is easily skirted, as Prime Minister Khurelsukh has shown. His flagrant flouting of the rules has angered many business owners, who have been heavily affected by the quarantine, as have conferences, churches, indoor playgrounds, universities and schools, which are either banned or closed.
The irony is not lost on Enkhjargalan Jadamba, an event organizer. "I understood that [leaders believe] election rallies won't spread the virus, but people who meet friends and go out after 10 p.m. will." He told the Nikkei Asian Review that his company has struggled to drum up business since January, as all events have been prohibited.
Many Mongolians stranded abroad also want the elections delayed, as borders have remained closed except to those deemed vulnerable, such as pregnant women and young children, as well as the elderly, seriously ill or disabled.
About 10,000 Mongolians tried to return home in May, but only 2,000 of them have been allowed re-entry as of June. Authorities explain that the country does not have enough flight crews, quarantine facilities and medical workers to accommodate thousands of people from abroad. But some stranded Mongolians without proper financial means are sleeping in public parks and subway stations.
The MPP has leveraged its position of power by introducing a slew of populist measures. In February, Khurelsukh's cabinet, along with the president's office, forgave the debt of 230,000 pensioners, including those who had 6 million tugrik ($2,000) in outstanding loans.
In addition, the government promised other 200,000 loan-free pensioners that they would receive one million tugrik next year. The International Monetary Fund condemned the action as breaking the 2017 bailout agreement.
Johann Furmann, representative of Konrad Adenauer Foundation Mongolia said: "[The government] just pours money into the economy because of the pandemic crisis, just like German coalition government. But what will happen after election and COVID-19? The economic plans are missing."