July 20th, 2024

Young democracy of Mongolia, squeezed between authoritarian China and Russia, votes for parliament

By Ken Moritsugu, The Associated Press on June 28, 2024.

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) – Voters in the relatively young democracy of Mongolia were electing a new parliament on Friday in their landlocked country squeezed between China and Russia, two much larger authoritarian states.

At stake were 126 seats in an expanded parliament, 50 more than in the previous election in 2020. That contest was won by the Mongolian People’s Party in a landslide. The governing party still appears to hold the upper hand, but other parties may be able to capitalize on voter discontent to eat into its majority.

About two dozen voters lined up on a staircase heading down to a polling station in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar early Friday morning, some muttering complaints because it opened 10 minutes late. Some of the older voters, including community leaders, dressed up in formal silk robes sinched with large leather belts for the occasion.

Inside, voters filled out their ballots behind a small screen and then put them into an electronic vote counting machine. Before they left, a purple dot was put on one of their forefingers with a marker to prevent them from trying to vote again.

Mongolia became a democracy in 1990, ending more than six decades of one-party communist rule. While people have welcomed the freedoms that came with the end of the communist system, many have grown cynical of the parliament and its members, seeing them as working mainly to enrich themselves and their business associates.

The Mongolian People’s Party has recognized those problems but largely blamed them on other political parties.

The prime minister, Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, said Friday that democracy and trust in the parliament are weakened when personal interest is put ahead of the national interest. He called for a new page of cooperation between the government and citizens after the first three decades of democracy.

“Today, a completely new 30 years in the history of Mongolia begins,” he told a crush of reporters after casting his ballot. “Let’s all together see how this representative parliament will work and how political parties will perform.”

The polling station in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar is in a “ger” district, where many people first lived in nomadic tents after moving to the capital. It remains a poorer area, now a cluster of mostly simple homes, some still with tents in their yards.

Many residents of the district, particularly the older generation, support the People’s Party, which also ran the country during the communist era and then transformed itself into a center-left party in the democratic era.

Naranchimeg Lamjav, a 69-year-old People’s Party member and leader of the elderly community, was among a half-dozen voters in formal outfits who showed up at the polling station before its scheduled 7 a.m. opening time.

“I support the current government led by Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene, because they are establishing justice and starting the new era of 30 years,” she said, wearing an embroidered blue robe.

But some younger voters expressed disappointment with the People’s Party and said they chose younger candidates who they hoped would bring change.

Enkhmandakh Boldbaatar, 38, said he voted for neither the People’s Party nor the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, saying they also had not performed well. There are 19 parties vying for seats in the parliament.

“I’ve been living here for 38 years, yet the area is the same,” he said. “Only this road and some buildings were constructed. Things would have been different if they worked for the people.”

Corruption scandals have eroded confidence in the government and political parties. Besides the center-right Democratic Party, the HUN Party has emerged in this election as a potential third force.

In addition to corruption, major issues for voters included unemployment and inflation in an economy rocked first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by the fallout from the war in Ukraine. The country’s livestock herders were also hit by a “dzud” this year, a combination of severe weather and drought, that killed 7.1 million animals.

There were 2,198 polling stations spread out across the sparsely populated country, which is large geographically but has a population of only 3.4 million people. The voting stations are to close at 10 p.m. with preliminary results expected early Saturday morning.

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