Mongolians head to the polls Wednesday for their seventh national election since transitioning from state socialism to democracy in 1990. Here's what you need to know:
What's at stake?
Mongolia is rich in natural resources, with huge deposits of copper and coal, as well as gold and other minerals. The government has promised to use those treasures to enrich the nation, but the road to prosperity has been bumpy. Economic growth skyrocketed in 2011, as Ulan Bator worked to get a major mineral deposit online. But political bickering and an economic slowdown in Mongolia's biggest trading partner, China has kept the country's mines from reaching their potential, meaning politicians have fallen short of their big promises for new jobs and big money. In the words of University of British Columbia analyst Julian Dierkes, voters' have one big question on their minds: who is going to “put fried mutton on the table?”
Who are the major players?
Mongolia's ruling Democratic Party (DP) is pitted against its rival the Mongolian People's Party (MPP). The DP put Mongolia on its current democratic path, but the MPP, a leftover from the Soviet era, still commands strong loyalty from older voters with fond memories of socialist rule. Both parties have their partisans, but many Mongolians see little difference between the two. Voters hoping for a fresh approach to government have few options. While the 2012 election featured candidates from a range of political parties, the country's constitutional court changed the election rules in May of this year, moving it from proportional representation to a plurality-based system, essentially eliminating third parties. Still, there are a few other small parties and around 70 independents.
Mongolia is so big. How do people get to the polls?
With a population of about 3 million spread over more than 1.5 million square kilometres, Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country in the world. That's great for herders, who count on access to the country's vast steppe to feed their animals, but hard for people trying to get to the polls. So, the government has taken great pains to make sure everyone has the chance to vote. A number of Mongolia's 21 provinces have set up gers, traditional Mongolian homes also known as yurts, in strategic locations around the countryside. Voting is done by “black box”, an optical scanning machine that transmits results from even the farthest reaches of the Gobi desert to election committees, who then report to the central government by phone. Once the preliminary count is in, administrators collect the ballots and verify 50 percent by hand, with final tallies announced on July 1. For the elderly or sick, mobile polling stations roam the country, letting people vote from the comfort of their own home.
How is Mongolia's campaign different?
Mongolia's unicameral parliament, called the Great Hural, has 76 members. All campaigning must stop at midnight on the day before the election. Also, hoping to put a damper on high political spirits, the government imposes a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol for three days starting from the day before voters head to the polls. In 2008, fatal riots broke out after voters contested the election results.
How strong is Mongolia's young democracy?
This year's election has been plagued by a number of issues that have raised voters' concerns about corruption. Many see the recent change in election laws as an attempt by the ruling parties to weaken potential challengers. That impression is supported by parliament's decision late last year to shorten the campaign period by 18 days, giving incumbents a leg up on new contenders. If that was not enough, the current coalition government recently announced that they would pay cash for shares of a national mining company given to Mongolians in the run up to a previous election. Many see the move as a cynical ploy to buy votes, taking advantage of voters who have fallen on hard times. Other concerns include the reliability of the “black boxes” used to count ballots, which many fear will be used to rig the election. Last but not least, the government has also taken steps to limit women's political power, cutting a national quota mandating 30 percent of candidates must be female to just 20 percent.