Mongolians are heading to the polls Thursday to elect a new parliament that will be tasked with how to best use the country's massive influx of mineral wealth to help its still poor population.
The resource-rich country boasts the world's fastest growing economy, thanks to a jump in revenue from its still largely untapped gold, copper and iron resources.
But, although Mongolia's economy grew by 17 percent last year, the newfound wealth has so far brought few benefits to the country's 2.8 million people, a third of whom live below the poverty line.
Opinion polls suggest the main opposition Democratic Party has a slight lead over the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP) in Thursday's election. Both parties are promising to create funds that would spread the mining profits more evenly throughout society.
The election has been marked by allegations of corruption, with a legal battle taking place between President Elbegdorj Tsakhia and his predecessor, Enkhbayar Nambar.
Enkhbayar was barred from running for office after being arrested in April and charged with misuse of state funds and other abuses of power. He says the charges are politically motivated, and tells VOA it is the current President Elbegdorj who is using the mining wealth to enrich himself.
“Big mining projects — these are the projects used by the present officials to enrich themselves. So I fight against this and am trying to say that the Mongolian people deserve better leaders, better solutions and better decisions.”
For his part, President Elbegdorj, of the opposition Democratic Party, said in an interview with VOA that corruption must not be allowed to stand in the way of democracy.
“Democratic elections in Mongolia — I hope they will advance our democracy. Democratic elections and fair elections are an essential feature of an open society. But corruption is a mortal enemy to open society, and we have to fight corruption.”
Corruption is not new to Mongolia, a former Soviet client state that ended seven decades of communist rule in 1990. The country ranks 120th out of 183 in Transparency International's latest corruption index, notes former President Enkhbayar.
“[This] is 30 or 40 places behind the place that Mongolia occupied when I was the president. I cannot say that 80 or 90 is a good place, but it is better than 120.”
Before his corruption charges, former president Enkhbayar had planned to run in the current election as part of an effort to regain a position in parliament and eventually seek reelection to the presidency during next year's elections.
Although polls suggest the Democrats will oust the MPP, both parties are likely to rule in a coalition with the country's various political groups vying for power, including Mr. Enkhbayar's recently formed Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party.