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Populist judo champ to be Mongolian president

July 8, 2017

A former judo champ who campaigned on a "Mongolia first" platform has won the country's presidential election. Khaltmaa Battulga's campaign found fertile ground in a country with an ailing economy.

Wahlen Mongolia
Battulga is poised to be Mongolia's next presidentImage: Reuters/B.Rentsendorj

A populist businessman and judo celebrity has won a bitter election in Mongolia, according to voter data provided by the General Election Commission on Saturday.

Khaltmaa Battulga, of the opposition Democratic Party, had secured 50.6 percent of the vote in the run-off election. The vote tally is not yet final, but Battulga appeared to have an insurmountable lead over Miyegombo Enkhbold of the ruling Mongolian People's Party. Enkhbold had just 41.2 percent.

polling booth in Mongolia
Voter turnout was just over 60 percentImage: Reuters/B. Rentsendorj

Only overseas ballots remain to be counted.

The vote was seen as a referendum on the government's economic recovery plans and the role of southern neighbor China in the resource-rich country known as the birthplace of Mongol emperor Genghis Khan.

The land-locked country, wedged between China and Russia, has been an oasis of democratic governance since the collapse of communism nearly 30 years ago. But politics in the country of 3 million people have grown increasingly acrimonious, and complex, amid a difficult economy and corruption scandals among the political elite.

Political mudslinging

The election was marred by political mudslinging from all sides and the public perception that none of the candidates are desirable, according to Luvsanvandan Sumati, the head of the Sant Maral Foundation, a polling group.

"The worst election in Mongolian history," said Sumati.

Battulga campaigned on a "Mongolia First" platform, taking a populist page from US President Donald Trump. He pledged to be "a patriotic president" seeking "equal cooperation" with neighbors like China.

Some investors are wary of a Battulga presidency because of his calls for more state control of some mines and his suspicions of China, Mongolia's main trade partner.

Despite past protests, he has said he will support plans to build a key railway to China from the enormous Tavan Tolgoi coal mine and has praised China's Belt and Road pan-Asian infrastructure initiative.

"He may push projects that are politically motivated but not economically justified," said a Mongolia-focused institutional investor who asked not to be named.

Battulga rose to fame as a Mongolian wrestler. His businesses include a hotel, a Genghis Khan-themed amusement park, and food companies for baked goods and meats.

The run-off election became necessary after the June 26 vote failed to result in an outright winner.

bik/rg (AP, Reuters)