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The stakes are high as multinationals eye the country's largely untapped natural resources. So, why aren't voters eager to have their say?
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — After Mongolia's 2008 parliamentary elections, widespread riots resulted in about 700 arrests, five deaths and many injuries. Before the polls on June 28, onlookers wondered if they should expect the same.
But this time around, despite a high unemployment rate and mining wealth that hasn't exactly trickled down, Mongolia's elections were a big yawn. Voter turnout was low at just over 65 percent, which was down from more than 95 percent in 1992.
Why, when the stakes are high and getting higher — with multinational companies eyeing the largely untapped natural resources — do so few Mongolians seem to care who is in office?
It's not because they don't know what's going on.
Near to midnight after the polls closed on June 28, half a dozen young men were lounging in the downtown area sporting the hip-hop style synonymous with young nationalists. When asked if he had voted, a rapper named "AMG" did not hesitate. “The election is bullshit. It's all the same from one party to the other."
AMG is part of a new wave of resistance, re-crafting American rap music around Mongolian issues while sidestepping direct political involvement. About 1 million of Mongolia's more than 3 million people are under the age of 25, according to government figures. And it's a segment that has largely grown disenchanted with politics.
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Hip-hop artist “Gee” raps about life in “ger” districts (Mongolian wool tent/yurt) — the poor part of Ulan Bator. Gee is featured in a documentary about the Mongolian hip-hop movement scheduled to be released internationally this month.
His lyrics are political — for instance, he rails against foreign mining companies’ treatment of Mongolian workers. But, according to Al Jazeera, he isn’t interested in partnering with politicians who have sought him out. He says he makes music for himself, and doesn't "buy any of the claims made by present-day politicians," according to the report.
Roots of distrust
Lars Hojer, an anthropologist and assistant professor at Copenhagen University researching Mongolia, says that young nationalists aren't politically motivated.
“[Mongolian] people in general are disillusioned about politics," Hojer told GlobalPost earlier this month at a French bakery in Ulan Bator. "It is a very widespread understanding that politics and business are deeply intertwined and that most politicians only care about their own business and money and not Mongolia at large.”
Brandon Miliate, who contributes to the popular blog Mongolia Today, said voters didn't feel there was enough difference between the policies of those running for office. Though initial results show that some new officials were elected, Miliate says there aren't likely to be any significant shifts in policies.
Initial results show that the investor-favored Democratic Party won the most seats, though not enough to secure a majority. In the previous government, the Democratic Party was the junior member in a coalition with the more socialist-minded Mongolian People’s Party, which came in second in this election.
Though losing parties have demanded a runoff vote, the newly elected legislators were sworn in on Friday. And assuming the Democratic Party can form a coalition with a like-minded party, their win can be viewed as a boost for the mining sector.
After all, it was the Democratic Party that helped get the contract signed on one of the two major mines, the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is set to become operational in 2013.
Mongolia's economy is booming, largely thanks to its mining sector. Some investors are marketing the country as the new Qatar in terms of resource potential, and the Brookings Institution called it the second fastest growing economy in the world.
Just six years ago, the informal sector — herding yaks and goats — accounted for 60 percent of the country's GDP, according to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency. At that time, mining contributed a mere 9 percent. Today, mining accounts for a whopping 30 percent of GDP and that figure is likely to grow significantly once the two major mines come online next year.
China is first in line to reap the benefits, already gobbling up 92 percent of all Mongolian exports. Mongolia has surpassed Australia as China's largest supplier of coal, according to official figures, and China Shenhua Energy Co. is among the companies spending billions on access to Mongolia's mineral resources.
State-owned Shenhua and US-based Peabody Energy Corp won the joint bid to develop Tavan Tolgoi, the second largest in the world after western China and the other major mine set to go online in 2013.
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But a booming mining sector isn't good for everyone. Though a growing economy has cut unemployment rates, it has also helped raise inflation. And wage increases have been uneven.
Further complicating matters, the country is not equipped to supply skilled labor to bring infrastructure up to the level needed to tap its resources. That means migrant laborers from other countries arrive to take jobs while Mongolians grapple with unemployment.
Signs of progress
Voter apathy aside, Mongolia has made strides in certain areas. To curb voter fraud, which was a major inciting force in the 2008 riots, electronic counting machines were used.
Miliate, a registered foreigner election observer, said that, “compared to 2008, major steps have been taken to curb electoral fraud. It is our opinion that while small scale issues could have arisen, the protections in place were enough to protect against any levels of fraud large enough to actually buy an election.”
Mongolia has had one of the lowest representations globally of women in government at 3.9 percent, according the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Preliminary results for 2012 show nine women gained seats in parliament out of 76, compared to three in the previous polls. If this figure survives the recount, it ups women’s representation to about 12 percent.
And though most disaffected voters cite corruption as cause for their disenchantment, an anti-corruption legislation passed this year appears to be taking hold.
Former president and current leader of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Enkhbayar, was recently arrested on corruption charges. Preliminary election results show that his arrest deterred voters and his party didn't do as well as was expected, only gaining a few seats in parliament.
Still, Mongolia's declining political engagement may not be a bad sign for the country's nascent democracy. Some observers say it's just plain normal. At least it's not that far off from the way democracy plays out in the US.
"I think 64 or 65 percent is turnout is quite normal for a functioning democracy," said Undarya Tumursukh, national coordinator for MONFEMNET, a women’s organization. "Compare with US voting rates, apparently 61 percent in 2004 was the highest turnout since 1968. I actually wonder why we are even saying the turnout is low in Mongolia.”
If anything, it may actually be a sign that fraud has been largely checked during the election process and democracy is progressing.
“I think this time voter turnout might be more realistic than previous election years," she said. "It is highly possible previous voter turnout rates were artificially inflated due to fraud."
E. Dari contributed to this report in Mongolia.