July 13, 2017 10:00 am JST

Mongolia's new president promises an economic shake-up

Battulga Khaltmaa looks to lessen the country's trade dependence on China

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

Battulga Khaltmaa declares victory in Mongolia's presidential race at a press conference in Ulaanbaatar in early hours of Saturday. (Photo by Shunsuke Tabeta)

ULAANBAATAR New Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa has promised an economic overhaul that could see the former communist state move away from neighboring China and closer to other world powers.

Battulga, a member of the leading opposition Democratic Party, took office on July 10, the day after Mongolia's election commission certified the results of the July 7 runoff. Securing 50.6% of the vote, the 54-year-old populist and former martial arts star soundly defeated Miyegombo Enkhbold, the 52-year-old chief of the ruling Mongolian People's Party, who garnered 41.2% of the vote. Some 60.9% of Mongolia's 1.99 million eligible voters turned out.

The runoff campaign was rife with mutual mud-slinging as the two candidates leveled allegations of corruption at each other. In his victory press conference, Battulga referenced Enkhbold's "United Mongolia" campaign slogan in an apparent effort to encourage reconciliation among the divided public.

Battulga also discussed his immediate priorities for office and vowed to improve what he described as Mongolia's "battered economy." His victory was indeed aided by the government's unpopular economic reform program, which saw the introduction of higher taxes in an attempt to restore the country's finances.

Diversifying Mongolia's economic relations with the rest of the world is another top priority for the new president. Currently, China takes in some 80% of Mongolia's exports, the bulk of which are raw materials.

The new president is expected to forge closer relations with partners such as Japan, Russia and the U.S., cultivating greater independence from its powerful neighbor. This strategy jibes with the nationalist tone of Battulga's campaign, as well as his pledge to rectify the conspicuous wealth gaps in the country.

Battulga's victory keeps the presidency in Democratic hands for four more years, after his predecessor, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, served for eight. Mongolia is a parliamentary democracy, the government of which is run by the prime minister. Currently, the legislature remains under the control of the People's Party, which won 65 of the 76 seats in a general election last year. While the president holds veto power over legislation, the ruling party's supermajority enables it to overrule those vetoes.

The new president nevertheless pledged to work with his party's nine lawmakers to put pressure on the ruling party, and to work hard for the Mongolian people. Battulga will need to pick his battles carefully: Antagonizing the People's Party could bring the legislative process grinding to a halt.

BROAD SUPPORT Battulga's path to power was a long and winding one. He began his career as an artist, only to rise to prominence as a world champion in sambo, a martial art originating in Russia. When Mongolia abandoned communism in 1990, Battulga founded Genco, a conglomerate whose operations range from hospitality and tourism to food production.

His involvement in sports continued all the while. In 2006, Battulga was named head of the Mongolia Judo Association, where he helped put together his country's delegation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The men's judo team won Mongolia its first-ever Olympic gold medal that year. Former sumo champion Dagvadorj Dolgorsuren, who wrestled under the name Asashoryu, campaigned for Battulga, endearing him to younger voters.

Battulga's first electoral victory came in 2004, when he won a seat in Mongolia's parliament. He has held a variety of cabinet posts since the Democrats took the presidency, including minister of industry and agriculture and minister of roads, transportation, construction and urban development. Although he lost his seat amid the Democrats' defeat in the general election of 2016, he enjoyed strong support from within his party to run as presidential candidate -- a sentiment that was apparently shared by the Mongolian public.

Battulga garnered more votes than any other candidate in the first round of the presidential election on June 26 but failed to secure the required majority. Enkhbold finished second by a narrow margin in the three-horse race.

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