Voting is under way across Mongolia’s cities, townships and prairies, as the country chooses a new president amid worries about corruption and economic turmoil.
Most voters expect a two-horse race between the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) candidate Miyeegombo Enkhbold, the former mayor of capital Ulaanbaatar, and former martial arts star and property tycoon Khaltmaa Battulga of the outgoing president’s opposition Democratic Party.
But Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the breakaway Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) could win enough votes to trigger the country’s first-ever runoff.
All three presidential candidates were embroiled in corruption allegations, prompting some voters to leave their ballot papers blank in protest on Monday.
“I really wanted to participate, and do something, but I didn’t want to vote for any of the three candidates,” Khishigjargal, a 22-year old translator, said after leaving her ballot blank at a polling station in Ulaanbaatar.
“In the end, if enough people vote blank there could be another election,” she told Reuters news agency.
Resource-rich and landlocked Mongolia is a parliamentary democracy and elected a new government last year.
It was once Asia’s fastest growing economies, but in recent years it has struggled with mounting debt after foreign investment and commodity export earnings collapsed.
The new government secured a $5.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund in May after implementing austerity measures.
All three candidates promised to pull Mongolia out of financial crisis, restore its stagnant economy to its former “boom” status, and reassess ties with neighbours, including China, which purchases 80 percent of its exports.
The economy was 66-year-old herder Osorjamiin Ereenetuvshin’s top concern.
“The most important issues to me are the country’s prosperity, the people’s prosperity, and pollution,” he said near a polling booth in a yurt outside Ulaanbaatar.
Some voters said they heard little about unemployment and jobs – their top concerns, as candidates focused their campaigns on their opponent’s alleged shady pasts.
Among the accusations were a $25m scheme to sell government posts, hefty offshore accounts and a clandestine donation from a member of a South Korean church – all of which the candidates have denied.
Daram Erdebayar, a 61-year-old retired teacher, had previously been loyal to the MPP, but decided to support Battulga after a recording surfaced in which Enkhbold and other MPP officials were allegedly discussing a plan to hand public jobs to the highest bidders.
Lantu Erdenechimeg, a 50-year-old government official, said he voted for Enkhbold because of his unity pledge.
“For me, the most important things are solidarity and unity, which are more important than party divisions.”
Zunduv Gombojav, a 60-year-old unemployed disabled man, was disillusioned with the two main parties.
“Ganbaatar is the only one who speaks the voice of the regular people of Mongolia,” he told AFP news agency.
“For 27 years, we have chosen the two largest parties, but they have done nothing.”