Mongolians are voting to choose the country’s next president following a low-key campaign hampered by social distancing, cancelled presidential debates and one candidate catching COVID-19.
Polls opened at 7am local time on Wednesday (23:00 GMT on Tuesday) and will close at 10pm (14:00 GMT).
The winner will become Mongolia’s sixth president since its peaceful transition from communism to democracy in 1992.
Voters are choosing a replacement for current president Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a second six-year term.
Former Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khurelsukh of the Mongolian People’s Party, which holds a strong majority in parliament, is seen as the frontrunner. But his candidacy has prompted concerns about a possible strengthening of the military’s involvement in public affairs due to his background with the armed forces.
The MPP also controls the cabinet, and Khurelsukh’s biggest rival, Sodnomzunduin Erdene of the much-weakened Democratic Party, has said that a victory by Khurelsukh would threaten Mongolia with dictatorship.
Former tech CEO Dangaasuren Enkhbat, of the smaller National Labor Party, is running as a third-party candidate. Enkhbat tested positive for COVID-19 three days before the vote and is currently hospitalised.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial position, although it does include powers over the military and the right to veto legislation in some cases. Power is mainly vested in the parliament, the cabinet and the office of the prime minister.
A total of 2,151,329 voters are registered, according to the General Election Commission. It is not clear when a winner will be announced.
“We need to see our future from a fresh angle,” 18-year-old voter Naran-Erdene Bayarkhuu told AFP news agency.
“I hope Enkhbat will focus on young people – young people like me are voting for Enkhbat and old people are voting for Khurelsukh.”
Tamir Ider, a 33-year-old carpenter, told AFP he had returned a blank ballot because he did not think any candidate had good policies for the country, and he wanted Battulga to serve another term.
“Moreover, we shouldn’t hold an election when we have a high number of COVID cases,” he added.
All in-person campaigning has been suspended since Sunday after new local infections hit a record last week of more than 1,000 per day.
Mongolia’s already ailing economy has been thrown into crisis due to the pandemic, with 69,022 cases and 324 deaths reported. That has forced the temporary closure of markets and other enterprises in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, to which many in the traditionally herding population have moved in recent years.
Corruption and pandemic-related disruptions in demand for Mongolia’s chief exports such as coal and copper are also dragging on the economy.
“I really hope that the new president I chose today will put our economy back on its feet. Due to the pandemic, the Mongolian economy is really struggling, almost falling on its knees,” voter Undarmaa Baasanjav told the Associated Press.
Another voter, Enkhbold Munkhjargal, said unemployment was the country’s most urgent problem.
“I really hope that the new president I chose today will improve Mongolia’s reputation abroad and bring in more foreign investment,“ Munkhjargal said.
Mongolia has tried to maintain its political and economic independence from both Soviet-era patron Moscow – which supplies virtually all of its energy needs – and rising regional power China, which buys more than 90 percent of Mongolia’s mining exports.