• AFP-JIJI

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Mongolians went to the polls on Wednesday to vote for the country’s next president, in the nation’s third election to take place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Polls opened at 7am local time in the vast central Asian democracy, in an election hampered by social distancing, canceled presidential debates and one candidate catching COVID-19.

Voters are choosing a replacement for current president and populist businessman Battulga Khaltmaa, a former world champion in the Soviet-era martial art of sambo who cannot run for a second term under constitutional rules.

There are around two million eligible voters in the landlocked country between China and Russia, where political instability has been a constant problem for the young democracy.

The nation passed its first constitution in 1992 after decades of communist rule.

Mongolians lined up to vote wearing surgical masks and a mixture of traditional clothes, business suits and tracksuits under blue skies, standing in distanced queues marked by lines on the ground.

They were ushered into polling stations by staff in protective outfits, before casting their votes in front of the Mongolian flag.

Former prime minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa of the Mongolian People’s Party is seen as the frontrunner, looking to make a comeback after resigning amid public outrage in January over the treatment of a new mother with coronavirus.

Khurelsukh’s main rival is charismatic internet entrepreneur Enkhbat Dangaasuren, leader of the Green Party, who is hoping to capture the support of Mongolia’s youth.

“We need to see our future from a fresh angle,” said 18-year-old voter Naran-Erdene Bayarkhuu.

“I hope Enkhbat will focus on young people — young people like me are voting for Enkhbat and old people are voting for Khurelsukh.”

But Enkhbat’s campaign has been hindered by his being forced into quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 during a rally.

Last year, a parliamentary election delivered a landslide victory for the ruling Mongolian People’s Party — largely on the back of no domestic transmissions of the virus.

But since then, cases have soared, with around 300 deaths from COVID-19 recorded — although the country has achieved impressive rates of inoculation with around 90% of adults given their first dose.

Tamir Ider, a 33-year-old carpenter, said he had returned a blank ballot because he didn’t 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.

Inequality is a key concern among Mongolian voters with the poverty rate standing at 28%, according to the latest World Bank survey.

The country is also one of the hardest hit by climate change, causing desertification and pollution. Temperatures swing from minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter to 30 C in the summer.

Traditionally heavily influenced by nomadic culture, more than two-thirds of the population now live in cities.

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