Mongolia braces for change
It's 7.30am and Chuluun Ganhuyag is standing in Sukhbaatar Square, limbering up in a tight-fitting black Adidas tracksuit. A group of supporters surround him, stretching and bending over to touch their toes, each of them wearing a T-shirt with an image of Ganhuyag's stubbly pate printed on the back.
The early morning jog across the potholed streets of Ulan Bator is part physical fitness and part campaign tactic as the 39-year-old pursues membership in Mongolia's 76-seat parliament, called the Great Hural.
'In order to stay fit during the campaign, I initiated this jogging group to run every morning. I think it energises and inspires young people to do sports and get involved with city life,' said Ganhuyag, before dashing across Sukhbaatar Square, which is named after the hero of Mongolia's 1921 communist revolution.
Sporting a crew cut and boyish looks, Ganhuyag is the fresh face of the Mongolian People's Party (MPP), the ruling force in Mongolia's political establishment and the one that is facing the greatest pressure as the country holds general elections on Thursday.
MPP, Mongolia's oldest political party, was known as the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) until 2010, when it reverted to the name by which it had been known since 1924, three years after it was formed in 1921. But after an internal split, the MPRP name was adopted by a breakaway faction now led by former president Nambar Enkhbayar. MPRP currently portrays itself as a protest party for voters fed up with the establishment.
Locked in a fierce battle for votes with the opposition Democratic Party (DP), MPP is trailing the Democrats by 14 points in the latest opinion polls. According to a survey conducted by the Sant Maral Foundation, 42 per cent of voters support the DP, while just 28 per cent favour MPP.
These figures are in stark contrast to Sant Maral's April poll, which showed both parties, the two biggest, running neck and neck.
To be sure, MPP is not trailing in the polls for lack of effort. Ganhuyag and his fellow parliamentary candidates are all over the city and across Mongolia - their billboards loom over every street corner. Their advertisements appear on television screens in cities and villages. And on the internet, there is a full-fledged campaign battle being waged on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
'For me it's a social media election,' said Ganhuyag, speaking in a cafe after his jog. 'I interact with voters through my tweets and blogs and I have a podcast that describes my ideas and platform.'
His other means of campaigning is old-school flesh-pressing. He boards buses and greets voters, he holds rallies on street corners and he waves to passers-by as he jogs, perhaps surprising a few Mongolians who are used to seeing politicians drive around town in Hummers and Land Cruisers with tinted windows.
Ganhuyag's MPP, the ruling party during Mongolia's seven-decade experiment with communism, brands itself as a centre-left party that focuses on social welfare supported by higher taxes. In contrast, the DP is a centre-right party that favours low taxes and support for light industry and private business.
While Ganhuyag dashes about town, the DP campaign is equally vigorous. It broadcasts short television programmes that depict negative aspects of Mongolian life, and then promises that life will improve under its leadership. Some election watchers say DP's message has resonated more strongly among voters than MPP's.
'People see the Democrats as hip and eager to change the system, while the MPP is viewed as older guys that are out of touch with the values and interests of ordinary voters,' said Dale Choi, chief strategic officer at Ulan Bator-based Frontier Securities. 'The Democrats talk about cleaning up government from inside out, while MPP wants to stay on the same track they've been on for years.'
While the Democrats push for change, the MPP argues that its recent four-year rule has been good for Mongolia.
Indeed, Mongolia's economy has grown strongly. Gross domestic product rose 17 per cent last year and is expected to reach 19 per cent next year. And over the past four years, the national average monthly salary has doubled from 250,000 tugrik (HK$1,450) to 500,000 tugrik.
The mining sector has been a major growth driver, boosting foreign direct investment by roughly 400 per cent last year to a record US$5 billion.
However, the DP argues that only the wealthy elites are gaining from the economic boom, while most Mongolians struggle with rising inflation, inadequate infrastructure and high unemployment.
Tsedevdamba Oyungerel, a DP candidate seeking to represent Ulan Bator's Khan-Uul district, thinks the political campaign is more about social issues and less about flashy adverts and posters. At a weekend rally in Khan-Uul, an area known for its sprawling factories and tangle of roads through crumbling tenement blocks, Oyungerel heard repeatedly from voters that land rights are their biggest concern.
'Everyone I meet wants to talk about how they can get their land,' said Oyungerel, referring to a decade-old plan to distribute a plot of land to every citizen. 'It's an issue that is close to their hearts and MPP is not talking about this.'
The Stanford-educated Oyungerel, a former adviser to the Mongolian president, accuses the government of ignoring the needs of marginalised poor families.
'In many of the outer 'ger' districts people live in total darkness, there are no roads, no water, no electricity. The MPP has been in power for more than 10 years and have done nothing in these areas. They pretend these places do not exist,' she said.
While the DP and MPP duke it out on the campaign trail, the MPRP has been rising in the polls.
Under former president Nambar Enkhbayar's leadership, the MPRP and its coalition partner, the Mongolian National Democratic Party (MNDP), won 24 per cent of the votes cast in the latest Sant Maral poll. This is significantly higher than the 12 per cent of votes that the MPRP-MNDP coalition secured in the April poll.
In an ironic twist of fate, Enkhbayar himself is barred from running for office due to a ruling by the General Election Committee, which declared him unfit to run because he did not meet a requirement that candidates 'display proper education, experience and commitment to the state'.
In April Enkhbayar was arrested and charged with five counts of corruption that investigators say occurred during his terms as president (June 2005 to June 2009) and as prime minister (July 2000 to August 2004). In a dawn raid, plainclothes officers broke into his home, dragged him outside with his feet still bare and bundled him into a van.
The arrest shocked many Mongolians, who felt the case was politically motivated to keep Enkhbayar out of politics. But rather than damaging Enkhbayar's reputation, the incident seems to have galvanised a segment of the population and boosted his popularity. Most of his support has been drained from the MPP, a party he once led.
'The MPP is campaigning very effectively on behalf of Enkhbayar,' said Luvsandendev Sumati, Sant Maral's head, with a hint of sarcasm.
'The way they are handling Enkhbayar's case creates an opinion among certain parts of society that they are oppressed and they require some support.'
The rise of a third political force is indicative of festering voter dissatisfaction about government and politicians, often perceived as corrupt and self-serving. When Sant Maral asked voters if lawmakers remain the true representatives of the people, 89 per cent said 'no'. And when asked if the wealth gap is too wide and could result in civil unrest, a similar percentage of voters said 'yes'.
That was precisely what occurred after the 2008 election, which descended into violence after Tsakhia Elbegdorj, DP's leader at that time and the current president, accused MPP of rigging the vote. Elbegdorj had led a mob to MPP's headquarters and the protest spiralled out of control, leaving five people dead and the MPP building gutted by fire.
For Thursday's elections, few people expect such violence, but as Mongolians prepare to vote there is a sense of urgency about who should lead the country into a potentially bright future. Whichever party is voted into power will be at the helm of a putative emerging Asian powerhouse. It will have huge expectations to fulfil, as voters have been promised their fair slice of the economic pie.
'Both parties have similar goals but want to take different roads in getting there,' said pensioner Gombosuren Duger. 'My vote is for the MPP, but no matter who wins I just hope our politicians could distribute our wealth fairly. Mongolia is rich and we should all benefit.'
The estimated value, in US dollars, of Mongolia's 10 largest mining deposits. But nearly a third of its 2.8 million people live in poverty