June 29, 2017 10:00 am JST

Mongolian voters book a return trip to the polls

Lack of a clear presidential victor triggers a runoff

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

Mongolian presidential candidates Battulga Khaltmaa, left, and Enkhbold Miyegombo (Photos by Shunsuke Tabeta)

ULAANBAATAR Mongolia is headed for the first runoff presidential election in its history, after all three candidates failed to secure an outright majority in voting on June 26.

Battulga Khaltmaa of the leading opposition Democratic Party came in first with roughly 517,000, or 38.1%, of the votes, according to the election commission. He will face the second-place finisher, onetime front-runner Enkhbold Miyegombo of the ruling Mongolian People's Party, in the second round on July 9.

Battulga is the head of the Mongolian Judo Association, a prominent businessman and a former minister of food, agriculture and light industry. His nationalistic pledge that "Mongolia will triumph" resonated with the country's youth. A savvy social media strategy helped, too, along with promises to use the country's rich mineral reserves to benefit Mongolians -- though some worry how this could impact foreign-funded development projects.

At a news conference on election night, Battulga called on younger voters to turn out again for the runoff; the overall turnout in the first round stood at 68.3%.

Although Enkhbold, a former prime minister, was long considered the favorite, he only sneaked into the second round, with a 30.3% share of the votes. Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party candidate Ganbaatar Sainkhuu finished just behind, at 30.2%, trailing by fewer than 2,000 ballots.

The campaign involved more mudslinging than policy debate, leading many Mongolians to lament the lack of options this year.

REFORMS ON THE BALLOT Many see the election as a referendum on the country's economic reform plans.

Enkhbold, currently chairman of the State Great Khural, the parliament, stressed to reporters on election day that the focus needs to be on economic and social issues and finding a solution to Mongolia's budget deficit.

In April, the MPP-controlled parliament passed austerity legislation, including higher vehicle, alcohol, tobacco and fuel taxes. It also moved to raise the retirement age and cut allowances for children and pensioners.

The International Monetary Fund approved a much-needed three-year, $434 million loan to Mongolia the following month, as part of a broader $5.5 billion financing package also supported by Japan, South Korea, China, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

"The authorities' program aims to stabilize the economy, restore confidence, and pave the way to economic recovery," the IMF said in a statement. "A critical pillar of the program is fiscal consolidation, to reduce the pressure on domestic financial markets, stabilize the external position and restore debt sustainability."

At the time, though, experts questioned whether the government would be able to press ahead with painful reforms and spend the money wisely. Some also voiced concerns about a lack of checks and balances to ensure the money is not misused.

NO CANDIDATE UNSCATHED Enkhbold is calling for unity on fiscal reforms that he says are in step with global trends, and economic reforms that will get a tailwind from renewed foreign investment.

But his party's austerity policies appear to have hurt him, as did allegations of illicit land sales during his time as mayor of Ulaanbaatar. A televised debate that many thought was skewed in his favor triggered a backlash, too.

Ganbaatar, for his part, broadened his appeal beyond his older base by tapping into long-held grievances over foreign companies mining the country's resources. But his credibility took a hit from the release of a video allegedly showing him receiving a donation from a foreign organization.

Battulga is not free from suspicion, either. He has been accused of hiding nearly $900 million overseas and having deep ties to Russia.

The president serves a four-year term, is commander-in-chief of the military and has veto power over the parliament.

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