Observers say he is a sure thing. His party hopes he is. In what is a three-way competition, Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj will be seeking to retain power in the presidential election scheduled for June 26, keeping his Democratic Party the dominant force in government at least until the next legislative election.
His main rival is Bat-Erdene, of the opposition Mongolian People's Party. But Elbegdorj is the tried and tested candidate whose political career dates back to the country's democratic beginnings, when he helped launch a democratic revolution in 1990. He’s been prime minister twice, non-consecutively, and is a proponent of foreign investment to keep the Mongolian economy growing.
“The president has to defend his record of the last four years,” says Badral Munkhdul, owner of media group Cover Mongolia.
A mining boom has helped Mongolia achieve tremendous economic growth since Elbegdorj took office in 2009. Exports of coal and copper to China have been the chief driver of GDP growth, which clocked in at 17.5 percent in 2011 and reached 12.3 percent in 2012. But the benefits have exacerbated the gap between rich and poor, leaving many resentful of the industry.
“Generally the country as a whole and the population has benefitted from the recent mining boom,” explains Munkhdul. “Of course, there is a gap between how much the poor are taking advantage and how the rich are. It’s disproportionate.”
Munkhdul believes the Mongolian government has yet to do enough to resolve the disparity. In 2012, when under the control of the Mongolian People’s Party, it tried a quick fix by initiating a cash allowances program. The program, which distributed the equivalent of about $15 a month, proved widely popular. Ironically, say critics, it was also the main culprit for rising inflation, which hurts the poor most. According to the World Bank, annual inflation soared to 14 percent in December 2012.
Elbegdorj’s challenger Bat-Erdene is one of a younger breed of politician who has largely campaigned on the strength of his “clean hands,” although he has not made any specific charges of corruption against the president. His Mongolian People’s Party is the remnant of the communist party that ruled Mongolia for nearly 70 years between 1921 and 1990, and has controlled Mongolia for most of its history as a democracy. The party has seen its influence largely sidelined since being relegated to opposition, and is eager to return to power.
The final challenger, Natsag Udval, is something of a stand-in for the currently incarcerated Nambar Enkhbayar. She has been one of the disgraced former politician's most ardent supporters since his arrest for alleged corruption during his presidency. She also runs on the novelty of being the country's first female candidate for the presidency.
Looking back at Mongolia’s last five presidential elections, its vibrant democracy has emerged from unlikely beginnings. The country is sandwiched between two giants that show little regard for democratic values, yet rather than mirror the policies of either China or Russia – each of which has at some point controlled the nation – Mongolia has instead embraced what is now today a functioning, if flawed, democracy.