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Mongolian Voters Offered Competing Anti-Poverty Plans - 2004-06-25

Mongolians are going to the polls Sunday to decide whether to allow the country's former Communist party another four years in office.

The formerly communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, or M.P.R.P., ended its official campaign with a pop music concert Thursday, urging voters to maintain the party's overwhelming dominance in parliament.

Opposing them is the Motherland-Democratic Coalition, a group of right-of-center parties that ruled Mongolia from 1996 until its crushing defeat in 2000, amid sharp economic decline, hyperinflation and a gridlocked government.

The coalition says it is more united than during its last term, and better prepared to lead this impoverished, sparsely populated nation to a brighter economic future.

Its candidate for prime minister, Mendiin Enkhsaikhan, says he would begin work by targeting poverty.

While an expansion of copper and gold mining has begun to boost Mongolia's economy, opposition politicians say economic growth has been unevenly distributed. They point to the growing tent city of livestock herders who have flocked to the capital after a series of harsh winters killed off large numbers of cattle. Homeless children spend the cold months living below ground in the city's sewer system.

Mr. Enksaikhan has proposed giving 10,000 togrogs, about $10, to every child under 18.

He calls this the nucleus of a wider poverty-reduction program that will ease the lot of the one third of Mongolians living in poverty, in a country where the average wage is less than $500 a year.

But incumbent Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar says handing out money to Mongolia's children won't work.

"It will not create jobs. It will just be sort of a useless waste of money, and I'm 100 percent sure it will be impossible to implement this promise."

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Enkhbayar's party has come up with a similar plan, to offer about $100 to families with newborn children, or with more than three children.

John Poepsel, country director for the non-profit International Republican Institute, says neither plan really solves Mongolia's most pressing problems.

"Our concern is you're not addressing the issues," he said. "Basically, you're not addressing the economy, corruption, alcoholism, jobs, and those are what people are concerned about."

He says many Mongolians see promises of subsidies, whether to children or families, as more of an election ploy than an answer to their troubles.