Mongolians began voting Wednesday for a new president amid COVID-19 restrictions and efforts to revive the economy of the vast landlocked nation of just 3 million people.
The winner will become Mongolia’s sixth president since its peaceful transition from communism to democracy in 1992. Incumbent Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party is barred by the constitution from seeking a second six-year term.
Among the candidates, former Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh of the Mongolian People’s Party, which holds a strong majority in parliament, has prompted concerns about a possible strengthening of the military’s involvement in public affairs due to his background with the armed forces.
The MPP also controls the Cabinet, and Khurelsukh’s biggest rival, Sodnomzunduin Erdene of the much-weakened Democratic Party, has said that a victory by Khurelsukh would threaten Mongolia with dictatorship.
Former tech CEO Dangaasurengiin Enkhbat of the smaller National Labor Party is running as a third-party candidate. Enkhbat tested positive for COVID-19 three days before the vote and is currently hospitalized.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial position, although it does include powers over the military and the right to veto legislation in some cases. Power is mainly vested in the parliament, the Cabinet and the office of the prime minister.
A total of 2,151,329 voters are registered, according to the General Election Commission. Polls close at 10 p.m. and it’s not clear when a winner will be announced.
Voters are required to observe social distancing, and restrictions on public gatherings have severely curtailed campaign events, prompting candidates to shift much of their outreach to voters online. All in-person campaigning has been suspended since Sunday after new local infections hit a record last week of more than 1,000 per day.
Mongolia’s already ailing economy has been thrown into crisis due to the pandemic, with 69,022 cases and 324 deaths reported. That has forced the temporary closure of markets and other enterprises in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, to which many in the traditionally herding population have moved in recent years.
Corruption and pandemic-related disruptions in demand for Mongolia’s chief exports such as coal and copper are also dragging on the economy.
“I really hope that the new president I chose today will put our economy back on its feet. Due to the pandemic, the Mongolian economy is really struggling, almost falling on its knees,” voter Undarmaa Baasanjav said.
Another voter, Enkhbold Munkhjargal, said unemployment was the country’s most urgent problem.
“I really hope that the new president I chose today will improve Mongolia’s reputation abroad and bring in more foreign investment,“ Munkhjargal said.
Mongolia has tried to maintain its political and economic independence from both Soviet-era patron Moscow — which supplies virtually all of its energy needs — and rising regional power China, which buys more than 90% of Mongolia’s mining exports.
Source:: News Headlines