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Mongolians Likely to Re-elect ex-Communists - 2004-06-27

Mongolians are heading to the polls for their fourth general election since the fall of Communism. The former Communist Party appears likely to win re-election, but with a smaller parliamentary majority.

Nomads from the edge of the Gobi Desert and office workers from the grand Soviet-style buildings of Ulaanbaatar are lining up to cast ballots Sunday in the election for Mongolia's parliament, known as the State Great Hural.

The race pits the former Communists of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party against the centrist alliance of the Motherland-Democratic Coalition.

Vast, but sparsely populated, Mongolia suffers from endemic poverty, relying on livestock and copper and gold mining in its effort to lift average incomes above the current level of less than $500 a year.

With the economy now slowly improving, both sides are focusing their campaigns on promises of more jobs, as well as lower taxes for the fledgling private sector.

The opposition coalition ran the government from 1996 until 2000. John Poepsel of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. non-profit development group, says that this first coalition government proved a disaster.

"Almost immediately after they won the election, the coalition fell apart, and they couldn't govern," he said. "There were allegations of corruption, allegations of embezzlement, and it was a complete failure."

With the government gridlocked and the economy failing, the people swept the former communists back to power in 2000, giving them 72 of the parliament's 76 seats.

Opposition lawmaker Sanjaarsuren Oyum says the coalition has become more united over the past four years, and will very likely pick up seats this time.

She says the Motherland-Democratic Coalition has also been much more open about its corruption problems than the ruling party, and she would consider it a victory, if the coalition wins enough seats to provide an effective dissenting voice in parliament.

"We couldn't keep the government accountable in the last four years. So, if we are a strong opposition, at least, I think we can do this," Ms. Oyum said.

Incumbent Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar points to his party's achievements in boosting the economy and curbing inflation. But he also admits that voters will probably forgive the opposition for some of the problems during its troubled rule, and he doubts his party will retain the huge majority it currently enjoys.

"I think it's impossible, you know. Not because we are bad or we performed badly, but because it was a completely different situation in the year 2000," Mr. Enkhbayar said.

He says he will be satisfied if the voters keep him in power so he can continue with his plans for road-building and poverty-reduction projects.