Resource-rich Mongolia headed to the polls Thursday to elect a new parliament, with both major parties telling frustrated voters they would deliver better shares of a stunning but divisive mining boom.
Mongolia’s economy has exploded in recent years as mining giants such as Rio Tinto and China’s Shenhua moved in to exploit the vast, landlocked nation’s huge and largely untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold.
The economy grew by 17.3 percent last year and foreign investment quadrupled to $5 billion.
But the least well-off among Mongolia’s 2.8 million people often complain that they are reaping few benefits of the boom, corruption is worsening among the elite and foreign mining companies are being given ultra-generous deals.
“Mining revenue comes into Mongolia but it is not for us, only the politicians,” 52-year-old truck driver Baasandorj, who like many Mongolians uses one name, said after voting in a run-down district of Ulan Bator, the capital.
“Life in Mongolia these days is very difficult. Most of the people are poor. They cannot buy food and clothes. But the rich buy their children very expensive things.”
Baasandorj cast his ballot in one of the “ger” districts, named after the type of tent traditionally used by nomads but which now dominate the poor areas of Ulan Bator where more than half of the city’s one million residents live.
Before the mining boom most Mongolians lived nomadic lives not far removed from their famous warrior hero, Genghis Khan, who roamed on horseback from the beautiful steppes of his homeland to build an empire into Europe 800 years ago.
Elsewhere in Ulan Bator today, there are dazzling examples of the new riches flowing into the country, such as a high-rise construction frenzy that is rapidly changing the once-dour city’s skyline.
Despite the economic and corruption concerns, Thursday’s elections are widely seen as another step forward in the democratic process for Mongolia, which is wedged between Russia and China.
It ended seven decades as a Soviet satellite country in 1990 and held its first elections in 1992.
Since then, its transition to a democratic capitalist state has been largely peaceful.
Accusations of vote-rigging in the 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in riots that left at least four dead, however the government introduced an automated ballot system for this year that is aimed at increasing transparency.
Polls will close at 8:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Thursday and the results are expected to be known far more quickly than the weeks it took under the previous system of manual counting.
The government said an official announcement would likely be made on Friday.
The ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the main opposition Democratic Party, which have shared power in recent years, have campaigned on platforms of ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth across the vast nation.
“All the revenue from the mining sector should support other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture,” Democratic Party chairman Norovyn Altankhuyag told AFP on the eve of the elections.
“It is important that those revenues should be distributed to all of the people… all Mongolian citizens should equally benefit.”
Opinion polls show the Democratic Party has a slight lead over the MPP and Altankhuyag would become prime minister if the surveys translate into victory.
The MPP — Mongolia’s oldest party which held power during the Soviet era — has made similar promises, including a national sovereign wealth fund to distribute mining revenues and increased spending on infrastructure projects.
“We will also support seriously education and health systems, which would contribute to the quality of life of the ordinary people,” an MPP spokeswoman said this week.
The MPP’s chances appear to have been damaged by its acrimonious split with former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who broke away last year to form his own party.
He was barred from standing for a seat in parliament after being charged with corruption, accusations he insists are fabricated and intended only to ruin him politically.
But although he cannot personally run, opinion polls suggest his Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party will take a damaging number of votes from the MPP and could hold the balance of power in the 76-seat parliament.