Squeezed between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Communist China, Mongolia prides itself on its democracy, but voters expressed frustration with poor governance and a weakened economy in the face of slumping demand from its southern neighbour.
The contest largely came down to a choice between the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), a holdover from the country’s socialist past that has traditionally commanded a loyal following among older voters.
Hours after the 10 pm (1300 GMT) close of the polls, preliminary vote counts showed the MPP winning 63 out of the country’s 76 provinces, with two areas yet to declare and full results to be announced Thursday morning.
The preliminary results, released by the Mongolian general election committee, are based on an electronic tally of all votes and are not confirmed until the ballots have been counted by hand.
At a press conference, MPP chairman Miyegombiin Enkhbold thanked the party’s supporters.
“The people of Mongolia have just given great trust to the MPP,” he said, adding that the party “understands that this trust is a huge responsibility.”
Many voters saw little difference between the two parties, who ran on largely similar platforms, heavy on bromides about economic development but light on concrete proposals.
But the electorate still turned against the DP, delivering a stinging rebuke of its failed economic policies and sending down the party’s candidates by huge margins — in some cases by almost two votes to one.
Voters also soundly rejected independent candidates, with only one out of 69 candidates selected.
In a statement following the results, the leader of the DP said his party will respect the people’s will, easing fears that the country might see a repeat of 2008 riots following accusations of vote tampering.
Despite weak early turnout, participation levels ended at around 70 percent across the country, according to Mongolia’s Eagle News.
The number wa a slight uptick from 2012 levels, bucking analysts’ expectations that voting could hit an all-time low. Turnout has declined each election cycle, a trend that experts attribute to increased scepticism of the country’s political class.
According to pre-election polling by the International Republic Institute, over 60 percent of Mongolians felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.
“As the economic crises persist, there’s considerable mistrust in the political system,” said Morris Rossabi, an expert on Mongolia at Columbia University.
Voters were “facing increasing disillusionment with political parties,” Rossabi added.
Mongolia’s vast natural resources have drawn the attention of multinational mining giants, such as Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, which has a multi-billion-dollar copper and gold project at Oyu Tolgoi in the southeast.
But political disputes over the role of foreign investment and slowing growth in Mongolia’s largest trading partner China have stymied development.
In the run up to the election, many voters expressed anger at the DP’s inability to live up to its promises to turn Mongolia into a prosperous nation when it took power following the last election in 2012.
After the DP came to power, the country’s world-leading growth of 17.3 percent in 2011 quickly fell, dropping to an anemic 2.3 percent last year.
Speaking earlier in the day, mother of three Shatariin Chahdal told AFP said that she had voted for an independent, but hoped that regardless of who won, the new government “would focus on creating new jobs rather than delivering cash handouts.”