Mongolians vote as anger grows over corruption and economy

Mongolia's centre-right anti-corruption HUN party is expected to increase its parliamentary representation (Hector RETAMAL)
Mongolia's centre-right anti-corruption HUN party is expected to increase its parliamentary representation (Hector RETAMAL)

Mongolians began voting in parliamentary elections on Friday, with the ruling party widely expected to win despite deepening public anger over corruption and the state of the economy.

Voters across the vast, sparsely populated nation of 3.4 million -- sandwiched between authoritarian China and Russia -- are exercising their democratic rights to elect 126 members of the State Great Khural.

Polls opened at 7 am local time (2300 GMT Thursday), AFP reporters saw in the capital Ulaanbaatar and at a remote polling station. They close at 10 pm.

At a polling station in rural Sergelen, an administrative division over an hour's drive from the capital, election workers in traditional garb stood for the national anthem ahead of the doors being opened to the public.

Voters tricked into the voting station, some taking selfies after casting their ballots, AFP reporters saw.

Among them was Batsaikan Battseren, a 45-year-old local community leader representing the ruling party who said he was urging people to come out to the polls.

"Our area's average participation is 60 percent," the former herder said, dressed head to toe in a traditional Mongolian deel.

But, he explained, "young people from 18 to 30 years old don't go to vote".

"In previous elections, I would usually bring the youngsters who have just turned 18 to let them vote, but I couldn't this year," he said.

- Public frustration -

Analysts expect the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP), led by Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, to retain the majority it has enjoyed since 2016 and govern the resource-rich country for another four years.

Yet there is deep public frustration over endemic corruption, as well as the high cost of living and lack of opportunities for young people who make up almost two-thirds of the population.

There is also a widespread view that the proceeds of a decade-long boom in coal mining that fuelled double-digit growth are being hoarded by a wealthy elite.

Preliminary results are expected to come within a few hours despite Mongolia's vast size, thanks to automated vote counting.

The streets of Ulaanbaatar -- home to almost half the population -- have been decked out with colourful campaign posters touting candidates from across the political spectrum, from populist businessmen to nationalists, environmentalists and socialists.

And, for the first time in almost a decade, parties are required by law to ensure that 30 percent of their candidates are women in a country where politics is dominated by men.

- Young voters unimpressed -

Younger voters are not convinced and the failure of the main opposition Democratic Party to provide a credible alternative has fuelled the rise of minor parties.

The centre-right anti-corruption HUN party is expected to increase its parliamentary representation through its social-media savvy, professional candidates who enjoy significant support among the urban middle classes.

"I think young people are more aware of the activities of political parties," said Norovbanzad Ganbat, a 24-year-old IT worker.

"They can see what the MPP has done in the last four years," she said. "That's why young people don't vote for this party."

Taking to the stage at Wednesday's rally, Oyun-Erdene blamed his political opponents for turning Mongolia into a "land of corrupt leaders" and called for a return to "discipline".

Mongolia has plummeted in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index under his party's rule.

It has also fallen in press freedom rankings under the MPP, and campaigners say there has been a notable decline in the rule of law.

A survey by the Sant Maral Foundation, Mongolia's top independent polling body, suggested more than a third of Mongolians believe the country is "changing into a dictatorship".

"I'll describe this election as a referendum on... Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene and whether he will manage to get a mandate to rewrite Mongolia's social contract," Bayarlkhagva Munkhnaran, political analyst and former adviser on the National Security Council of Mongolia, told AFP.

"This social contract will be about turning Mongolia into a proper electoral autocracy whereas, 10 years ago, Mongolia used to be respected as a liberal democracy," he said.

The MPP is the successor to the communist party that ruled Mongolia with an iron grip for almost 70 years but nonetheless remains popular, particularly among rural, older voters, and commands a sprawling, nationwide campaign apparatus.

Former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who held office for the opposition Democratic Party from 2009 to 2017, hailed the start of the election on X on Friday morning, writing: "As the Mongolian saying goes, 'It is better to live by your own choice than according to others' choices.'

"Around 260 foreign observers and three dozen journalists are present. I hope for genuinely democratic and transparent elections."