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Mongolian discontent

July 2, 2012

Only 65 percent of Mongolian voters turned out to the country's most recent parliamentary election. Mongolians are disappointed in the politics of their country, where the vast resources only benefit few.

Yurts in Mongolia
Image: Jürgen Kahl

The long-awaited Mongolian parliamentary elections did not give either of the two big parties a clear win. The people's discontent with the country's political establishment was apparent in the low voter turnout. Whereas there was a 74 percent turnout in the 2008 elections, this year, only 65 percent of Mongolia's 1.8 million eligible voters went to polls.

Due to discrepancies between the new electronic voting machines and handwritten ballots, results were still not in three days after the June 28 poll. According to preliminary results, however, it is already certain that the Democratic Party (DP) - the party of the political and economic shift of the year 1990 and also the party of the country's incumbent president - will be replacing the post communist Mongolian People's Party (MPP) with a slight majority.

Protest voters

According to preliminary counts, the DP is expected to gain 31 parliament's 76 seats - eight fewer than would been needed to build an independent government. That is a big defeat for the MPP, which immediately challenged the results: They are expected to lose 17 seats and is expected to have only 29 mandates. The losses are especially attributed to its former renegade chairman, head of government and president, Nambar Enkhbayar.

Enkhbayar split off from the party. He revived the revolutionary people's party under its old name Mongolian Revolutionary People's Party (MRPP) and gave it a more left-populist, nationalistic direction. He is extremely rich and was not allowed to run as a candidate due to his ongoing corruption trial. But offering an alternative for protest voters, is party managed to become the third largest party in parliament with an expected 11 seats.

Resource boom

The newest political curve is representative of the fast-paced development the country - with its small population of around three million people - has been experiencing since it was reformed 22 years ago.

Visitors experience Mongolia as a country of great change and extremes. Thanks to the export of natural resources, the country's economy is booming with two-figure growth rates. The skyline of capital Ulan Bator is changing just as rapidly. As soon as one newly built district is up, the next one is already being constructed. The apartment buildings with rent prices comparable to other international metropolises are just as symbolic of the country's progress as are its five-star hotels and its high-end shopping paradises.

"You don't even see as many luxury 'Hummers' in Munich as you do in Ulan Bator," a German businessman remarks. "That is also a symbol of great social disparities that are contributing to societal discontent. On the one hand, you have a very small number of the newly rich who flaunt their luxurious lives and on the other hand, you have a good third of the population who have absolutely nothing and who have to fight for survival every day. That is most evident in the slum, which surrounds the city like a ring and where over half a million migrants from the country side live in yurts.

Treasures in the steppe

The country's rapid change is also evident in deep in the steppe, where tourist go to get a taste of the romanticism of nomadic life and also the peace and quiet of nature.

Following the fresh tire tracks from the grass lands to the mountains, you often unexpectedly encounter something else: vast gold mines.

The number of not-quite legal mines is expected to run as high as 100,000. But is it necessity or greed that makes them dig? The answer, according to the head of one of a gold digger collective, is both. "Mongolias wealth of resources belong to all Mongolians," he explains. "If the government refuses us our share, then we go and get it ourselves."

When Angela Merkel went to Mongolia in the fall of 2011 - the first German head of government to visit the country - she had two objectives. The visit was, on the one hand an expression of respect for the only democratic country in Central Asia. But her visit was also about concrete economic interests.

German business is interested in contributing technology and equipment for mining and also wants to share in on the country's unexploited natural resources. With deposits of coal, copper, gold, uranium and coveted rare earth minerals, Mongolia is one of the world's most resource-rich countries.

Blessing or curse?

But are the country's resources more of a blessing or a curse? Mongolians have been thrown into a sea of hope and disappointment that has divided society up into two groups: the winners and the losers.

Both major parties in their campaigns said they have learned from the past. Both are committed to maintaining a "social market economy" and to a fair distribution of the profits of the resources as well as a sustainable economic development. But the election results have already shown that a considerable portion of the population are not convinced. They either didn't show up to voting stations at all or ran into the arms of the populists.

Author: Jürgen Kahl / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams

Gold diggers illegally mining gold in Mongolia
Mongolians take their fair share of resources - legal or notImage: Jürgen Kahl
A young girl fetches water in the yurt slum of Ulan Bator
Many Mongolians live in bitter povertyImage: Jürgen Kahl
Skyline of Ulan Bator
The skyline of Ulan Bator is ever-changingImage: Jürgen Kahl