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Mongolians go to polls hoping for mining wealth

This picture taken on June 23, 2013 shows President Tsakhia Elbegdorj in Ulan Bator
This picture taken on June 23, 2013 shows President Tsakhia Elbegdorj during the final presidential campaign rally at the Central Square in Ulan Bator. Mongolians headed to the polls Wednesday for a presidential election with the three candidates promisin

Mongolians headed to the polls Wednesday for a presidential election with the three candidates promising fairer wealth distribution from a spectacular mining boom that has raised questions over the role of foreign investors.

Recent polls suggest President Tsakhia Elbegdorj will secure a second term to continue his policy of using foreign cash to help drive the rapid development of Mongolia's economy, which grew by 17.5 percent in 2011 and 12.3 percent last year.

The expansion has been achieved following the arrival of foreign mining giants, which have moved in to exploit huge and largely untapped reserves of coal, copper and gold.

All three candidates claim they want to ensure a fair distribution of wealth -- political rhetoric that has caused friction with the overseas investors who have helped boost growth in the remote, land-locked nation.

Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto and Canada's Turquoise Hill Resources have jointly led construction of the $6.2 billion Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is expected to produce 450,000 tonnes of copper concentrate a year and generate up to one-third of government revenue by 2019.

The first shipments from the mine were blocked by the Mongolian government ahead of the polls and still remain grounded.

Rio Tinto spokesman Bruce Tobin told AFP the miner was keen start shipping "in order for the benefits from Oyu Tolgoi to start flowing to all parties, including the people of Mongolia".

A previous delay earlier this month followed a government demand that Rio Tinto keep all export revenue in Mongolia, Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag said.

Before the mining boom many Mongolians lived nomadic lives not far removed from their famous warrior hero, Genghis Khan, who roamed on horseback from the beautiful steppes of his homeland to build an empire that reached into Europe 800 years ago.

But concerns over rising inequality in the cities and environmental damage in the rural areas continue to dominate debate in the country's parliament.

Ordinary Mongolians also spoke of their distrust of politicians ahead of the polling, which started at 7:00 am Wednesday (2300 GMT Tuesday).

"I do not think choosing one of the three would bring any notable difference in politics or life," said 68-year-old Ochirbat Dambayarimpil, who runs a convenience store in Ulan Bator.

"All of them are the same. My life has not changed a bit after Elbegdorj became a president," he added.

Elbegdorj's main challenger is likely to be Badmaanyambuu Bat-Erdene, a champion wrestler and candidate from the Mongolian People's Party (MPP).

The third candidate, Natsag Udval, from the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), is reportedly Mongolia's first female presidential candidate. Udval is a supporter of former president Nambar Enkhbayar, who is serving a two-and-half year jail term on corruption charges.

Bat-Erdene helped draw up a new environmental protection law amid concerns that the country's breathtaking landscape was being damaged by industry.

And both of Elbegdorj's challengers harbour policies aimed at amending Oyu Tolgoi's contract amid concerns over rampant development and inequality.

"I will vote for Elbegdorj," said Chinguun Otgonbaatar, a 23-year-old student at the University of Medical Sciences in Ulan Bator.

"My parents and many people over 30 years of age are voting for Bat-Erdene. But another consideration is image. If Bat-Erdene becomes president he will need an interpreter to travel with him abroad. Whereas Elbegdorj speaks English".

Any candidate that wins over 50 percent of the vote will claim victory and avoid a run-off on July 10.

A survey carried out between June 14-16 by the Ulan Bator-based Sant Maral Foundation -- a traditional stronghold of the ruling Democratic Party -- suggested that 54 percent of Mongolians will vote for Elbegdorj.

The landlocked nation shook off seven decades of communist rule without a shot being fired in 1990.

It held its first elections in 1992, signalling a transition to democracy that has been largely peaceful, although accusations of vote-rigging in 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in deadly riots.

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