Former martial arts champion Khaltmaa Battulga poised to win Mongolian presidential election

The new president will inherit a US$5.5 billion IMF-led bailout designed to stabilise its economy and lessen its dependence on China, which purchases 80 per cent of Mongolian exports

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 10:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 9:38pm

A brash businessman with martial arts skills was leading Mongolia’s first-ever presidential run-off election early on Saturday after a scandal-plagued race to take the helm of the resource-rich but debt-laden country.

Khaltmaa Battulga of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), a 54-year-old former world champion in the Soviet martial art Sambo, had 50.7 per cent of the vote with 87 per cent of ballots counted, according to the General Election Commission.

“Mongolia has won,” Battulga said at a press conference, though the commission will announce the winner later on Saturday. “I will start work straight away to resolve the economic difficulties and make Mongolians debt-free as I promised.”

Parliament speaker Mieygombo Enkhbold of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which holds the majority in the legislature, was behind with 41 per cent. Some 8.3 per cent of the votes were blank ballots.

Many voters in the vast nation of 3 million people sandwiched between Russia and China were so fed up with their politicians that they launched a campaign to submit unmarked ballots.

A candidate must win more than 50 per cent of the votes to be declared the winner. If neither candidate reaches this number, the parties are required to nominate different representatives for an entirely new election.

The new president will inherit a US$5.5 billion IMF-led bailout designed to stabilise its economy and lessen its dependence on China, which purchases 80 per cent of Mongolian exports.

The former Soviet satellite’s economy grew by a measly one per cent last year, a stark contrast from an impressive 17 per cent in 2011.

It has been hit hard by a more than 50 per cent fall in the price of copper, its main export, over the past five years, while slowing growth in its biggest customer China has hobbled the economy.

I will start work straight away to resolve the economic difficulties and make Mongolians debt free as I promised
Khaltmaa Battulga

Battulga, a real estate tycoon whose company funded a massive US$4.1 million statue of emperor Genghis Khan, has pledged to tap the country’s mining wealth to get Mongolians out of debt.

The outgoing president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Battulga’s Democratic Party, did not run because he served the maximum two four-year terms.

Battulga’s lead shows that voters were “looking to balance” the MPP’s dominance of parliament and the presidency, said Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia scholar at the University of British Columbia.

“Battulga’s biggest challenge will be cohabitation with [the] MPP parliament,” Dierkes said. “Surely, parliament will almost immediately start discussions about constitutional reform taking powers from presidency.”

In the run-up to the June 26 first round, mud-slinging between the three candidates overshadowed the issues that most concerned voters, such as the economy and jobs.

Enkhbold eked out a mere 0.1 per cent victory over the Mongolian Revolutionary People’s Party’s Sainkhuu Ganbaatar in the first round.

Ganbaatar cried foul and demanded a recount, but the result was eventually confirmed.

Both Battulga and Enkhbold were linked to scandals ahead of the first-round vote.

A video showed Enkhbold and two MPP officials allegedly discussing a 60 billion tugrik (US$25 million) plan for selling government positions.

Battulga was haunted by reports of offshore accounts attached to his name, as well as the arrests of several of his associates by Mongolia’s anti-corruption body last spring.

But in the nearly two weeks between the first round and the runoff, public opinion appeared to turn in favour of Battulga, Dierkes said.

Dierkes noted that the MPP announced Tuesday that Mongolian parents would be a given a monthly 20,000 tugrik (US$8) allowance for every child, giving Enkhbold’s camp “a look of desperation”.

But Battulga’s party had made its own share of promises: on Monday, DP officials pledged that if Battulga was elected, he would order the government to cover students’ tuition loans and herders’ debts.