Updated: 06/26/2013 14:36 | By Agence France-Presse

Mongolians go to polls hoping for mining wealth

Resource-rich Mongolia headed to the polls on Wednesday for a presidential election, the latest step in the former Soviet satellite's political development which has been dominated by a debate over mining wealth.


Mongolians go to polls hoping for mining wealth

Current President, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, seen during the final presidential campaign rally at the Central Square in Ulan Bator, on June 23, 2013. Resource-rich Mongolia headed to the polls on Wednesday for a presidential election, the latest step in the former Soviet satellite's political development which has been dominated by a debate over mining wealth.

Incumbent Tsakhia Elbegdorj is considered the frontrunner this year with his main challengers being a champion wrestler and a woman.

Voters appeared to be out in force in the hours after polls opened at 7:00 am, with national television showing huge queues in some polling stations.

But in one in the capital Ulan Bator visited by AFP, the electronic voting machines were experiencing technical problems which meant voters could not be identified by their fingerprints.

"The computers with voter registration at this polling station are not working," said Enkhbold Miyegombo, a former prime minister from the opposition Mongolian People's Party (MPP) who was one of the first to cast their ballot.

"At the polling station they must recognise the voters by their identification documents and finger prints," he told AFP.

Scores of voters at the polling station in Chingeltei district were identified with their documents, rather than by fingerprint scanning, election officials said.

Accusations of vote-rigging in 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in deadly riots, and led to Mongolia adopting an electronic voting system.

Results of last year's parliamentary poll were delayed by allegations that the electronic system was faulty. However, the election was otherwise considered to have been held successfully.

Polls close at 10:00 pm (1400 GMT), and while results could arrive overnight, many pundits expect an official announcement later this week.

Recent polls suggest Elbegdorj will secure a second term to continue his policy of using foreign cash to help drive the rapid development of Mongolia's economy, which grew by 17.5 percent in 2011 and 12.3 percent last year.

The expansion has been achieved following the arrival of foreign mining giants, which have moved in to exploit huge and largely untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold.

Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto and Canada's Turquoise Hill Resources have jointly led construction of the $6.2 billion Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is expected to produce 450,000 tonnes of copper concentrate a year and generate up to one-third of government revenue by 2019.

The first shipments from the mine were blocked by the Mongolian government days before the polls and still remain grounded, Rio Tinto spokesman Bruce Tobin told AFP, without giving a reason.

A previous delay earlier this month followed a government demand that Rio Tinto keep all export revenue in Mongolia, Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag said. The government has not commented on the recent delay.

Before the mining boom many 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 that reached into Europe 800 years ago.

But concerns over rising inequality in the cities and environmental damage in rural areas continue to dominate debate in the country's parliament.

The Mongolian capital was ranked the planet's second-most polluted city by the World Health Organization in a 2011 report.

Much of this pollution comes from coal burned by residents living in 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.

Elbegdorj's main challenger is likely to be Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, a champion wrestler and candidate from the MPP.

The third candidate, Natsag Udval, from the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), is reportedly Mongolia's first female presidential candidate. Udval is a supporter of former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who is serving a two-and-half year jail term on corruption charges.

Both of Elbegdorj's challengers harbour policies aimed at amending Oyu Tolgoi's contract amid concerns over rampant development and inequality.

Any candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote will claim victory and avoid a run-off on July 10.

"I have voted for Udval because she is the first woman presidential candidate," said Munkhuu Zul, a retired former professor at the Mongolian National University, after voting in Ulan Bator, which was grey and colder than usual for the summer months.

He predicted a close vote.

"I think this time there will be a run-off election or public violence," he said.

A survey carried out between June 14-16 by the Ulan Bator-based Sant Maral Foundation -- a traditional stronghold of the ruling Democratic Party -- suggested that 54 percent of Mongolians will vote for Elbegdorj.

The landlocked nation shook off seven decades of communist rule in 1990, holding its first elections two years later, signalling a transition to democracy that has been largely peaceful.

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