Mongolia vote landslide stinging rejection of government policy

Ben Dooley
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A man casts his vote in Mandalgovi in the Gobi desert, Mongolia on June 29, 2016

A landslide election victory by Mongolia's opposition is a stinging rejection of the government's failed economic policies, analysts and voters said Thursday, as the country struggles to turn its vast natural resources into national wealth.

The Mongolian People's Party (MPP) won 65 out of 76 seats in the State Great Hural parliament, leaving the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in single figures with a mere nine spots, the election commission announced early Thursday.

Among the casualties was outgoing prime minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg, who lost his own Bayanzurkh seat in Ulan Bator to a virtual unknown.

"I voted for the MPP because the DP used their power only for their own good," said Magsarjaviin Bold, 46, a construction worker in the capital. "They are mostly businessmen and did things that only profited them."

Billions of dollars' worth of natural resources lie buried beneath Mongolia's sprawling steppes, drawing the attention of multinational mining giants such as Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, which has a multi-billion-dollar copper and gold project at Oyu Tolgoi.

But development has been delayed for years by disputes over the role of foreign investment, while slowing growth in Mongolia's biggest customer China has done nothing to help, and the ruling party paid the price for an anaemic economy.

In 2011, the year before the DP came to power, Mongolia's GDP rose a world-leading 17.3 percent. By last year expansion had slumped to 2.3 percent.

Marissa Smith, a Mongolia expert at De Anza College in San Francisco, told AFP: "There has been a shift since the last election away from blaming foreigners towards blaming Mongolian politicians and other elites for the failure of Oyu Tolgoi and (coal project) Tavan Tolgoi to have met expectations."

- 'Wrong direction' -

Turnout was 72 percent and 13 women were elected, up from 11 last time, despite a cut to a quota for female candidates.

Pre-election polling by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that over 60 percent of Mongolians felt their country was "headed in the wrong direction", a sentiment driven by concern over corruption and the government's inability to transform resources into new jobs.

"Voters were very clear with their ballots... they wanted change," said IRI's country director Ashleigh Whelan, adding that the victory will give the MPP an overwhelming majority in the legislature: "Any initiative that they want to pass... they'll pass it."

After the scale of the MPP's victory emerged, party chairman Miyegombiin Enkhbold vowed to put the country back on track, saying it would "do our best to fix the economic and social downturns."

But while the MPP was the ruling party during Mongolia's Communist era and the DP guided it to its democratic present, many Mongolians see little difference between the two parties and how much will change remains unclear.

Both ran virtually identical campaigns, focused on the importance of job creation through resource development, but short on practicalities.

"Our political parties don't really have a political ideology that unites them," said Mogi Badral Bontoi, CEO of market intelligence firm Cover Mongolia.

"Politicians join their parties not because of their political ideology... but which party gives them the best chance to gain power, gain influence."

The election result was "tentatively positive" for foreign miners, which also include Chinese state-owned coal giant Shenhua, said Greg Kwan of the Economist Intelligence Unit in a research note, as the new government was unlikely to reverse "a recent shift to a more friendly stance".

Mogi hoped the next government would be "much more focused on the economy than China", he said, "less populist, less nationalist, less protectionist".

Not all MPP supporters agree.

"I don't want the new government to sell Mongolian natural riches for lower prices to foreigners," said Zagdiin Sesemjav, a 62-year old pensioner who backed the party.

"That is giving them away," she said. "Most income must come to Mongolia, not foreign companies."