06/26/2017, 19.39
MONGOLIA
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Economy, relations with China, and religious freedom dominate presidential election

Mieygombo Enkhbold, of the Mongolian People's Party, and Khaltmaa Battulga, of the Nationalist Democratic Party, are the frontrunners. The vote is a referendum on economic policy. The country is trying to curb China’s hegemony. In religious matters, nothing has changed. Buddhism is protected by the state whilst Christians endure restrictions.

Ulaan Baatar (AsiaNews) – Mongolians go to the polls today to pick a new president. Polling stations opened this morning in the country’s cities and desert areas. The first results are expected tomorrow.

The campaign was dominated by the country’s economic crisis, foreign debt, high corruption, China's influence, and the impact of the relationship with Beijing on the religious freedom of Buddhists, and implicitly, of Christians.

An anonymous local source told AsiaNews that local Christians in all probability "will still face an uphill battle when it comes to promoting their faith. Regardless of who wins, what worries people the most is how to survive in a country that is now largely dependent on foreign loans and is trying to get more and more away from Chinese hegemony."

About two million people (out of a population of three million) are called upon to choose among the candidates in what looks like a two-horse race between Mieygombo Enkhbold, an investment-friendly career politician from the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), and Khaltmaa Battulga, of the opposition right-wing nationalist Democratic Party. Most analysts do not give a third candidate, Sainkhuu Ganbaatar, from the Mongolian Revolutionary Party (MPRP), any chance.

For many, today's vote is a referendum on economic policy and China's role in the country’s development. The election campaign saw various episodes of anti-Chinese sentiments. In one of these, Enkhbold was mocked as a "half Chinese" and was forced to publish his family tree to refute the charge.

Many stress that both frontrunners have invested their political capital in ensuring the country’s independence. Enkhbold has advocated for a “United Mongolia,” whilst Battulga has said that he wants to restore Mongolia’s “pride” under the slogan “Mongolia will win”.

Irrespective of what candidates say, Mongolia is in a serious economic crisis and its main trading partner is China. China’s share of Mongolia’s foreign trade was 68.5 per cent from January to May this year, up from 1.5 per cent in 1989. China took 90.5 per cent of Mongolia’s exports from January to May.

Experts believe that this relationship will determine the voters’ decision. Ultimately, economic growth may hold more allure for voters than nationalism, said Sumati Luvsanvandev, head of the Sant Maral Foundation polling group. Voters “may be suspicious [of China], but they’re also quite pragmatic.”

“I don’t think [anti-China] sentiment can win,” said Gerel Orgil, a Mongolian public opinion analyst. “People are increasingly rational. They are not thinking about what happened with China in the past; they’re thinking about what will happen in their daily lives if the economy doesn’t improve.”

The local source agrees that most people are concerned about the country’s "stagnant" economy. Mongolia recently received a US$ 5.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout.

In recent years, "the government has sought to reduce dependence on China by looking for other trading partners, the famous ‘third neighbour’ beside China and Russia, namely Japan and South Korea."

"The country needs foreign capital without which it cannot surviev. Now the issue is which partner and under what conditions it can get loans, so that they may be beneficial to everyone."

Some experts believe that the tie to China will not weaken especially after Mongolian authorities were forced to apologise for inviting the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in November 2016 for a religious event.

The incident angered the Chinese, who threatened heavy economic retaliation. After the apology, Beijing decided to reward Mongolia for its good behaviour by granting new loans.

According to the source, Chinese threats "have not had major repercussions on religious freedom at the local level." Most people are Buddhist and they "continue to live their faith in a free and autonomous way."

In Mongolia, state-religion relations are regulated by a law. Freedom to profess a religion is a right "guaranteed by the law although the right is officially recognised only for Buddhists, whilst the situation of Christians is different."

"It is no coincidence that the law is called the 'Law that regulates relations between the state and the monastery'. This means that primarily Buddhism is recognised by the state as the religion of its citizens.”

“According to many experts, Christians lack legal standing to exercise more freedom, but I do not think that changing the law is a government priority despite proposals for some amendments."

"I believe that the presidential election will not change anything. Controls will remain in place, red tape will be a burden, and people will not be able to promote the Gospel."

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