Mongolians vote amid economic woes, anti-coronavirus success

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) — Mongolians voted in parliamentary elections Wednesday across the vast, lightly populated country, a U.S. ally squeezed between authoritarian governments in China and Russia.

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The polls were held amid considerable success in the country’s fight against the coronavirus, with just 215 cases of COVID-19 recorded. All of them were imported and no one has died.

People lining up to vote in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, were required to maintain a distance of 2 meters (6.5 feet) between them. Once inside the polling place, election workers checked their temperatures and distributed hand sanitizer.

Police, interior troops and intelligence agents kept a close watch on polling places in response to fears the result to be affected by the buying of votes with cash or free transportation provided by candidates.

Economic malaise, corruption and weak public services dominate concerns among the country’s 3.2 million people, about half of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. Electricity and sewage treatment are in particularly short supply in the slum communities that surround the capital, mostly populated by former herders who have given up life on the steppe.

Polling places opened at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. with finals results not expected until Thursday. Some of the country's 2 million eligible voters also cast their ballots mobile polling stations on Tuesday.

Mongolia has maintained a nearly 30-year democracy instituted after a new constitution was adopted in 1992 following six decades of communism. The Mongolian People’s Party is seeking to retain the 65 seats it won in the 76-seat State Great Khural in 2016 while its chief rival, the Democratic Party, will seek to claw back some of its losses. More than 600 candidates are running in 29 constituencies under a system that returns two to three members from each district.

Lawmaker and Democratic Party Chairman Erdene Sodnomzundui said he hoped there would be high turnout for what he described as a particularly momentous vote.

“This election is very important as it will decide the future development of our country, not only for the next four years, but maybe the next 40, 50 years," Sodnomzundui told reporters.

Urban areas in the largely rural country are the most hotly contested, with 28 candidates running in one district of Ulaanbaatar.

Landlocked Mongolia boasts vast mineral wealth but has struggled to attract foreign investment because of plunging commodity prices and high-profile disputes between the government and large investors such as mining giant Rio Tinto. Despite its success in holding down infections, Mongolia’s economy is set to shrink because of the pandemic and prices are rising.

Corruption and a bulging national debt of about $23 billion, or twice the country’s annual economic output, have also been a major drag on the economy.

That's left more than 30% of Mongolia’s people living below the poverty line, and resentment over income inequality and graft could boost the odds for outsider candidates.

Mongolia also walks a narrow tightrope between maintaining its political and economic independence from both Soviet-era patron Moscow and rising regional power China. Almost 95% of Mongolia’s petroleum and energy needs are met by Russia, while China buys more than 90% of the country's mining exports, mainly coal and copper.

Washington has sought to encourage good governance and the growth of civil society in Mongolia, along with holding joint military drills and making Mongolia a NATO partner nation. Many Mongolia's refer to the U.S. as their country's “third neighbor" in recognition of the many varied exchanges between the two that help counter both Russian and Chinese influence.

Despite public discontent, the MPP is expected to make a strong showing based on its general competence in running government affairs and deft handling of COVID-19.

Mongolia moved swiftly to close its borders in January to prevent the virus from spreading into its territory. Those diagnosed generally have been Mongolians returning from Russia and other nearby nations. The Ministry of Health says 158 have recovered and 57 remain in treatment and isolation.

The two most recent cases were people who were isolated upon arrival on June 10 from Kazakhstan.

Another 255 Mongolians arrived Wednesday aboard a charter flight from Seattle, according to Mongolia's official Montsame news agency. All will be tested and quarantined.

Among the MPP’s leading candidates are current Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, Cabinet Secretary Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene and former presidential candidate Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene. The head of state, President Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party, elected in 2017, is not on the ballot.