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Mongolians go to polls hoping for mining wealth

29 june 2012, 11:08
0
Mining work at the open pit operated by Rio Tinto. ©AFP
Mining work at the open pit operated by Rio Tinto. ©AFP
Resource-rich Mongolia headed to the polls Thursday to elect a new parliament with both major parties telling frustrated voters they could deliver better shares of a stunning but divisive mining boom, AFP reports.

Mongolia's economy has exploded in recent years as foreign investors such as mining giant Rio Tinto move in to exploit the vast, sparsely-populated nation's huge and largely untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold.

But although foreign investment has quadrupled to nearly $5 billion, the least well-off among Mongolia's 2.8 million people often complain that they are reaping few benefits of the boom.

"I don't think any of the ruling political parties have shown the ability to handle the the big miners," said Amitan Ulam-Undrakh, a herdsman from the south of the country.

"I want to choose a party who has a clear idea on the coexistence of mining and the wider economy. Not a party that will just focus on the mining industry."

The enormous sums pouring into Mongolia have also led to accusations of large-scale graft levelled against political figures including former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who was charged with corruption this year.

But the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP) and the main opposition Democratic Party, which have shared power in recent years, both insist they can ensure a fairer distribution of wealth across the vast nation.

Mongolia, wedged between China and Russia, peacefully ended seven decades of communist rule in 1990 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 riots that left at least four dead.

The Democratic Party, which is leading the MPP according to polls, said this week it would create a fund to distribute mining profits evenly throughout society, including via pensions.

The MPP -- Mongolia's oldest party -- has made similar promises although also without giving much detail.

"We will have a national sovereign wealth fund created that would benefit the people equitably," an MPP spokeswoman said.

"We will also support seriously education and health systems, which would contribute to the quality of life of the ordinary people."

The MPP's chances appear to have been damaged by its acrimonious split with Enkhbayar, who broke away from the party last year to form his own organisation.

He was barred from standing for a seat in parliament amid the fall-out of the corruption scandal.

Enkhbayar denies any wrongdoing and despite the fact he cannot personally run, opinion polls suggest his Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party will take a damaging number of votes from the MPP.

A range of new measures have been introduced in this year's election to boost transparency, including the use of an electronic voting system that went into operation with the opening of the polls at 7:00am (2300 GMT Wednesday).

The automated system is expected to see the results announced very quickly, potentially within hours of the polls closing.

Mongolia's president, currently from the Democratic Party, is elected separately and can initiate policy and veto parliamentary decisions. But a two-thirds majority of the legislature can force measures through without the head of state's approval.

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