Mongolia Votes Amid Concerns on Mining Boom

from The New York Times..

By Gerry Mullany

June 26, 2013

HONG KONG — Mongolians voted on Wednesday in national elections that have focused on demands that the resource-rich country do a better job of distributing wealth to its citizenry as international mining companies tap into its vast resources.

The current president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, is considered the favorite and he is trying to avoid a runoff by capturing 50 percent of the vote against two main opponents. Under Mr. Elbegdorj and his pro-growth policies, Mongolia’s economy grew by 17 percent in 2011 and 12 percent last year, placing it among the world’s five fastest-growing economies, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But how that wealth is distributed has overshadowed the election amid concern that foreign companies are exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources without much benefit to the Mongolian people. A plan by two foreign companies, Rio Tinto of Australia and Turquoise Hill Resources of Canada, to begin shipments from a huge copper mine was delayed by the government ahead of the election amid demands that Rio Tinto keep more proceeds in Mongolia. The $6 billion mine is expected to provide a third of government revenues by the end of the decade.

Results of the voting are not expected until Thursday. Mongolia, a landlocked country between China and Russia that is home to 2.7 million people, held its first national elections in 1992, two years after its Communist leadership fell from power in a peaceful transition.

Mr. Elbegdorj is facing challenges from Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, a champion wrestler who is the candidate of the Mongolian People’s Party, and Natsag Udval, from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, who is a backer of former President Nambar Enkhbayar. Both opposition candidates have called for changing the terms of Rio Tinto’s contract for the mine, located at Oyu Tolgoi.

Many in Mongolia are concerned about how the vast expansion of the country’s mining industry has changed the nation’s character from a nomadic land to one of lightning-fast economic development, with pollution now afflicting the country and its capital, Ulan Bator. At the end of last year, Mongolia’s Parliament passed a law that would extract more royalties from the operations of the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which has alarmed foreign investors given the $6 billion investment by Rio Tinto and its partners in the mine.

If no candidate secures 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held July 10.

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