Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia - There was a time when Tugsjargal Munkherdene felt like a pariah. Not one of Mongolia's many radio stations would air his songs; no agent was willing to help him find a gig. It seemed in a nation the size of Western Europe, there wasn't space for a hip-hop rapper, whose harsh lyrics - some of which border on what could be described as "hate" - attack the powers he sees corrupting the country.
Today, however, on the eve of elections, 28-year-old Munkherdene, also known as rapper "Gee", is one of the most sought-after sensations. As we meet in one of the hundreds of grungy bars that line the streets of the capital Ulanbaatar, his mobile phone won't stop ringing.
"It's another political candidate," he says and smirks. "I'll ignore it, I don't speak or rap for no-one."
That politicians are chasing after a hulking, heavily tattooed rapper who has at times been mistaken for being the "muscle" of Mexican drug cartels, speaks to the climate of the times: specifically, the public's seething anger over the belief that this fledgling democratic system is failing to keep leaders accountable, and that they, along with foreign companies, are "stealing" the country's valuable mineral wealth.
That is at least the perception. To have Gee, the outspoken crusader, appear at an election rally would be an automatic endorsement that a candidate is "clean", the nation's political operatives seem to believe.
Racism? Or railing against foreign ownership?
|M for Mongolia: Gee is an outspoken opponent of Chinese mine operators [Steve Chao/Al Jazeera]
In one of his most controversial videos, Gee swears at the "Hujaa", a derogatory slur against the Chinese, equivalent to "chink". Wielding a meat cleaver, with sheep carcasses swinging in the background, he threatens to cut up Chinese operators of mines who mistreat their Mongolian workers, along with the country's leaders who sign away the nation's resources.
The video has been viewed more than 170,000 times on YouTube. In a country of 2.9 million people, that equates to a hit.
"I wrote that song because I was angry," he says. "There are so many cases of Mongolians not getting paid, even worse, being beaten and killed in the mines, and our leaders don't do anything. Our politicians should be ashamed. I wouldn't even call them Mongolians."
Negative public sentiment has not only been reserved for Chinese operators. Many other foreign enterprises that run the country's largest mines have also been targets.
Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a nomadic herder and an internationally renowned environmentalist, shot at a foreign mining operation in 2010. He decried what he described as "predatory capitalism".
"We will give the mining companies fair warning - either they must cease their activities or incur our wrath," he said at the time, just before being jailed. Munkhbayar has since been released and continues his campaigns against the mining industry.
Mongolia, or "Minegolia", as migrant workers are keen to call it, is undergoing a rapid transformation, due to its incredible resource wealth in minerals such as coal, copper, and gold. Some estimate [PDF] the total value of known deposits to be $1.3tn.
The country's economy grew some 17.3 per cent in 2011, faster than any other nation. And if predictions are correct, it will continue its double-digit growth for well over a decade.
But with such wealth comes greed. In 2011, Transparency International placed Mongolia 120th out of 183 nations on its corruption perception index - joint with Iran and Ethiopia, among others. Sumati Luvsandendev, the country's leading pollster, says 90 per cent of Mongolians believe politicians are benefitting from "special arrangements" with foreign enterprises over mining rights.
Public pressure has forced the government to consider placing restrictions on how much of a stake outside companies can have in Mongolia. That has led to nervous investors. A case in point came this week, as shares in Mongolia Mining Corporation, the nation's biggest coking coal exporter, slumped to a record low following speculation that investment rules would be tightened after the upcoming parliamentary elections on Thursday, June 28.
Mongolia's president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, says he prefers to leave investment issues as they are, and focus instead on tackling the widespread corruption within the government. The this end, he has beefed up the powers of the agency responsible, the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC).
Former president jailed
Since its inception six years ago, IAAC officials say they've gathered evidence on more than 600 politicians and civil servants. But it's the charges against a former president, Nambaryn Enkhbayar, that have raised eyebrows.
In the early morning of April 13, some 600 police officers, including members of a SWAT team, appeared on Enkhbayar's doorstep. A smaller group had failed to arrest him the night before, after his bodyguards reportedly drew guns.
Barefoot with a bag over his head, the former leader was bundled off to jail and charged with five counts of corruption. What followed was what one on-air host described as "the most interesting reality TV show Mongolia has ever seen". Networks aired footage of the former leader being shown around his "accommodation", which was far more comfortable than that of the average Mongolian prisoner.
Then there was the drama of a 12-day hunger strike, where Enkhbayar was seen at times verbally and physically lashing out at his handlers. Following pleas by his family members over his health, a court released him on bail.
The former president, who ran the country from 2000 to 2004, has called his treatment and the case against him "political persecution" and accused Elbegdorg, along with his "corrupt associates", of trumping up the charges to prevent him from contesting this week's elections, seen largely as his chance at a political comeback.
"It's quite widespread for all authoritarian regimes worldwide," Enkhbayar says. "When they want to remove their political opponents from the state, they use charges of corruption." With the case before the courts, the election commission has indeed barred him from running. But whether it is justice or political persecution depends on whom you talk to.
While in jail, Enkhbayar's media-savvy son made several international appeals and appeared to have convinced some that democracy could be under threat. At least one US senator, a former US ambassador, and even Amnesty International publicly raised doubts about the legitimacy of the case. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon even reportedly phoned Elbegdorj to express his concerns.
The current president, however, insists there are no political motivations behind the charges. "I know and most Mongolian people know that Mr Enkhbayar is trying to escape from the court of justice and trying to create [a] court of public opinion," said Elbegdorj. "I would like to urge our allies in the international community to follow this case closely."
He added: "Mongolia is regarded as the democratic anchor in the east… freedom here is non-negotiable, and the fight against corruption is also non-negotiable."
Of the five counts before Enkhbayar, one involves the selling of valuable state property in the heart of the capital to friends and relatives - including a hotel, which is now owned by a company run by his son.
He's also accused of diverting donations from Japan originally meant to be spent on television equipment for a Buddhist temple. The donations were allegedly used to pay for equipment at a network run by his wife.
"Some outside the country may not look at these crimes as much," says Unurbayr Chadraabal, an official with the IAAC, "but counted together, they total some $6m, and in Mongolia that is considered a big thing."
While most of the political parties (barring Enkhbayar's) have preferred not to comment on the case, corruption has taken over as the key issue in these elections. At campaign rallies, candidates refer to it as a "disease", and admit that while "all parties are guilty of it, they are all committed to putting an end to it".
With one in three Mongolians still living in poverty, there is a heavy expectation that the government must move to ensure a fair distribution of the country's resources. "The only way out of this situation is to have more growth that is more just," says Dashdorj Zorigt, the current mines and energy minister.
Interestingly enough, Enkhbayar's plight has revitalised his party's election hopes. Supporters packed a hall at a recent meeting of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) to hear him speak. Having sold himself as the victim of a "corrupt government", many of his backers are the disenchanted. "The person who is really uniting the protest voters against the establishment is our ex-president, that's why whatever he is doing, he will be popular," says Sumati.
But not everyone is so easily convinced. rapper "Gee" Munkherdene laughs off questions about how he will vote. He is so passionate for his country that he wears its name on a tattoo just below his left eye, and says he doesn't "buy any of the claims made by present-day politicians".
What he's looking for, he says, are concrete efforts that bring visible change. "My parents taught me to care about this country. I only use harsh words in my songs because I want to bring people's attention to the problems and make leaders listen."
The phone rings again. It's yet another political candidate. Is his popularity, and the fact that corruption has become a key election issue, perhaps a sign that Mongolians are starting to listen to him? He only smirks and says, "we'll see".
Follow Steve Chao on Twitter: @SteveChaoSC