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ULAN BATOR: Mongolians will vote on Thursday to elect a new parliament tasked with distributing the spoils of a mining boom that has brought rapid growth but also rising inequality to the resource-rich nation.
Mongolia’s economy has exploded in recent years, as a relatively stable political environment has drawn in foreign investors keen to exploit its vast untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold.
Foreign investment quadrupled last year to nearly $5 billion, according to government data, but little of that has trickled down to the poorest of Mongolia’s 2.8 million people.
The ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the main opposition Democratic Party both say they want to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth in the vast and remote nation, although neither has given any detailed indication of how.
“The issue now is how the parties will use the further proceeds of mineral wealth coming into the country,” said Jargalsaikhan Dambadarjaa, a Mongolian political commentator and television presenter.
“One thing that is for sure is that they will not be giving out any more cash payments to anyone. We are tired of the conflict of interests and using public money for their political purposes,” he told AFP.
Before the last parliamentary elections in 2008, voters were offered cash payments of up to 1.5 million Mongolian tugrik ($1,130) as the leading parties attempted to gain political capital from the economic boom.
That practice has been banned this year. But what politicians do with the proceeds of foreign investment has become a major election issue, with more than $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits yet to be extracted.
The vast wealth pouring into Mongolia has also led to accusations of large-scale political graft — including against former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who was charged with corruption earlier this year.
Enkhbayar, who broke away from the MPP last year to form his own party, has also been barred from standing for a seat in parliament — a move he says is politically motivated.
He denies the corruption charges and opinion polls suggest his Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) will succeed in snatching a significant number of votes from the MPP.
One poll conducted this month by the independent Sant Maral Foundation showed the opposition Democratic Party in the lead with 42 percent of the vote, while just 28 percent said they would support the Mongolian People’s Party.
A coalition of Enkhbayar’s MPRP and the Mongolian National Democratic Party (MNDP) was close behind with 24 percent — double the support they achieved in an April opinion poll.
Luvsandendev Sumati, head of the Sant Maral Foundation, said many Mongolians believed the ruling party had mishandled Enkhbayar’s case, costing it votes.
The MPP — Mongolia’s oldest party — and the Democratic Party have spent much of the last decade in power together as part of a coalition. Some in Mongolia see both parties as serving their own interests at the expense of an adversarial political system.
“People really don’t like the parties because they have been working together for years,” said Bayanjargal Oyuntuya Khatgiin, a 27-year-old Mongolian student who is supporting an independent candidate at this year’s polls.
“They say that both parties are too close and that everybody has become corrupt.” Landlocked Mongolia, wedged between China and Russia, shook off seven decades of communist rule in 1990 without a shot being fired, and held its first elections in 1992.
Since then, its transition to a democratic capitalist state has been largely peaceful, although accusations of vote-rigging in the 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in deadly riots.
A range of new measures have been introduced in this year’s election to boost transparency, including an electronic voting system.
Whichever party comes first, Mongolia’s parliament — known as the Great Khural — will be under intense pressure to ensure the country’s wealth is equally distributed.
“Economically, it (Mongolia) is incredibly unequal,” said Kirk Olson, an environmentalist who has worked in Mongolia for 12 years.
“You have guys renting the airport at night so they can drive their sports car up and down the runway... but at the same time you have six-year-old street kids.
You have all sectors of life, but all living on one street.” AFP