Mongolia's Obama?


ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — See if this rings a bell: A young, renowned Democratic Party orator and Harvard graduate champions change and wins the presidency based on broad support in urban areas.

Meet Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s Obama. Sort of.

In the nascent democracy’s fifth presidential election, Mongolians on Sunday chose Elbegdorj, 46, over incumbent Nambaryn Enkhbayar of the Mongolia People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Elbegdorj, who had been blamed for inciting deadly riots last year after calling the parliamentary election rigged, adopted Obama’s mantra of “change” and leveled corruption allegations against his rival. Enkhbayar’s followers, meanwhile, said Elbegdorj was part Chinese. Sound familiar?

Voters, frustrated by government incompetence, didn’t buy it. The landlocked nation of 3 million voted for Elbegdorj by a margin of 4 percent (he garnered 51 percent of the vote).

So is he really Mongolia’s Obama?

“We’ll see,” said T. Tselmeg, a producer for a national television station (who like many Mongolians goes by her given name), moments after Elbegdorj delivered a fiery speech on Monday in Ulan Bator’s Sukhbaatar square, at the foot of a huge statue of Genghis Kahn. “The people here aren’t necessarily for Elbegdorj. They want change.”

Truth be told, Elbegdorj is hardly the face of change. He’s a two-time former prime minister and has been a prominent figure in Mongolian politics since 1990, when he helped lead a peaceful revolution that ended 70 years of communist rule. But in a country with a serious lack of faith in government and the electoral process, the biggest winner of this year’s presidential election was perhaps democracy itself.

“We did much better this year,” said Dagva Enkhtsetseg, program manager for the Open Society Forum, which coordinated 49 domestic election supervisors and found no major irregularities. “A lot of people lost hope in our democratic future. People were anxious this time. ‘Will it work?’ And it did work.”

It was a much different story less than a year ago, when after a disputed parliamentary election several hundred Democratic Party supporters took to the streets. In the ensuing vodka-fueled riots, five people were killed and the MPRP’s headquarters was scorched.

To prevent another outbreak of violence, the government on Sunday banned public gatherings, suspended alcohol sales and beefed up police presence. New measures were adopted to prevent voting irregularities, including special voter cards.

“We will follow the law,” said D. Dorjderem, an election supervisor at a voting station in Zuunmot village, about 45 minutes from the capital, after reprimanding an elderly couple for using the same voting booth. “The electoral process has to be open for everybody. Everyone must obey the law.”

Zuunmot, like much of Mongolia’s countryside, was Enkhbayar country, and the majority of voters streaming in and out of the secondary school gymnasium voting station marked their ballots for the leader of the MPRP, the former communist party.

“Enkhbayar is a good person, a good leader,” said N. Damba, 73, who showed up to vote wearing a deel, a traditional garment worn on special occasions. “Elbegdorj is a good politician, but he was already prime minister and didn’t get anything done.”

Ulan Bator, by contrast, voted strongly for Elbegdorj, who pledged to root out corruption and reform the judiciary. In a gritty neighborhood on the city outskirts where the majority of residents still live in traditional ger dwellings, M. Altangadas, a 50-year-old construction worker filling up buckets at a local water station, said it’s time for a change in Mongolian politics. “If Enkhbayar wins there will be riots,” he warned.

Now the hard work begins. Mongolia — with an economy that relies heavily on resources such as copper, coal and gold — has been hit hard by the global financial crisis and plummeting mineral prices. One-third of Mongolians live under the poverty line and unemployment is on the rise.

Elbegdorj’s victory could complicate a crucial $3 billion investment agreement involving the Oyu Tolgoi project, one of the world’s largest copper and gold reserves set to be developed by Ivanhoe Mines of Canada and Rio Tinto of Australia. The long-delayed agreement will likely be the blueprint for future mining projects in the resource-rich country. Elbegdorj, a populist, has promised to negotiate a better deal for the Mongolian people.

Whether Elbegdorj is really an agent of change will remain to be seen. But that didn't matter at Sukhbaatar Square on Monday, where the mood was decidedly hopeful.

“We’ve had democracy for 20 years,” said L. Rentsen, 72, a retired police officer and Democratic Party supporter for two decades. “Now we have the opportunity to be a rich country. In the future Mongolia can be great.”

In other words, Yes We Can.

More GlobalPost dispatches on elections around the world:

Who's pulling the strings in Afghan elections?

Malawi's musical elections

Japan: The Hatoyama dynasty


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