Ex-wrestler, doctor challenge incumbent in Mongolian presidential poll

Debate on corruption dominates election campaign as ex-wrestler and doctor challenge Elbegdorj's bid for a second term as president

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 3:22am


A popular ex-wrestler and a doctor, the first woman to seek Mongolia's top office, are the main rivals to the Harvard-educated incumbent in today's presidential elections, but neither is likely to wrest the job from him.

The election campaigning has been dominated by debate over corruption, which President Elbegdorj Tsakhia hopes will work in his favour - throughout his four-year term the former journalist has attacked bribery and embezzlement, weeding out graft in the national airline, public welfare funds and among the custodians of Mongolia's vast mineral wealth.

But he has also been accused of shielding his party members from corruption investigations.

"I'm your son. I know your pain and struggles," Elbegdorj, 50, told cheering supporters at a final campaign rally on Sunday in the capital, Ulan Bator. "I know exactly what I will do if I'm re-elected. I will continue my fight against corruption and finish what I already started."

This year's election has again raised the question of how best Mongolia, a staunch US ally, should benefit from its boom in the mining of coal, copper, gold and other minerals. The newfound wealth has propelled the economy to dizzying heights, but also contributed to soaring inflation and further skewed the uneven wealth distribution in the landlocked country which is squeezed between China and Russia.

Polls show Elbegdorj of the ruling Democratic Party with a strong lead over his rivals.

Elbegdorj, who has a degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has also been highlighting his political origins as a leader of the 1990 protests that ended 70 years of one-party communist rule and gave birth to a thriving democracy in a region better known for stern dictatorships.

He was elected president in 2009 after serving two terms as prime minister. He lives with his wife, mother and 25 children of whom 20 are adopted.

Along with fighting graft, he has promised to enact further legal reforms, increase public participation in government decision-making and boost the nation's participation in global institutions.

"Before Elbegdorj, nobody dared touch these corrupt officials protected by their party leaders," said retired Ulan Bator accountant Tungalag Tsedevdorj, a supporter of the president.

Elbegdorj's main rival, opposition Mongolian People's Party lawmaker Baterdene Badmaanyambuu, is a former wrestling champion who has portrayed himself as a clean politician committed to upholding national unity and fighting the environmental degradation brought by the mining industry.

Mongolians have huge respect for their traditional burly wrestlers, and Baterdene has successfully leveraged that popularity to win three terms to the Great Hural, Mongolia's parliament.

Baterdene, who towers over most of his compatriots with a height of 177cms , is one of Mongolia's most successful wrestlers ever. He is an 11-time winner of the Mongolian national competition of Naadam that combines horse racing, archery and wrestling.

Baterdene, who also holds a master's degree in law, has vowed to overcome regional rivalries in the herding nation of three million people, a third of whom are poor, further root out corruption and rid law enforcement and the justice system of political influence.

A third candidate, Health Minister Udval Natsag, is Mongolia's first woman to vie for the presidency and a staunch backer of former President Enkhbayar Nambar, now serving time in jail for corruption.

Critics of the president say he and his party are using the anti-corruption campaign as cover for politically motivated attacks on Baterdene's Mongolian People's Party. They point out that no Democratic Party members have been investigated or arrested by the country's anti-corruption body, the Independent Agency Against Corruption run by Elbegdorj's allies, and say the judicial and law enforcement branches have effectively become Democratic Party auxiliaries.