ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia – Mongolia's presidential election appeared headed for a runoff with the latest vote count early Tuesday showing a business tycoon leading the ruling party's candidate and a nationalist wanting the country to benefit more from its mineral wealth.
Khaltmaa Battulga of the Democratic Party had a clear lead but less than the required 50 percent of the 1.3 million votes cast Monday to avoid a runoff, the General Election Commission said.
The Mongolian People's Party's Miyegombo Enkhbold, speaker of the parliament and a horse dealer, had looked to be shut out of the runoff in the early results but pulled into second place as votes from more remote areas of the landlocked Asian country were counted.
Enkhbold was around 1,700 votes ahead of nationalist Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, a vocal critic of mining giant Rio Tinto's operations in the country, according to the latest data from the election commission.
Ganbaatar's party protested the overnight turn in preliminary results that put their candidate, who had earlier been leading Enkhbold by 15,000 votes, in third place, accusing the election commission of fraud. The commission could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
While the nation of 3 million had been an oasis of democratic stability since the end of communist rule nearly three decades ago, its politics have grown increasingly fractious amid an economic crisis and accusations of corruption among the ruling class.
The candidates were seeking to succeed Tsakhia Elbegdorj of the Democratic Party, who has served the maximum of two four-year terms. The winner will become Mongolia's fifth president since 1990.
Enkhbold, whose party won parliamentary elections last year by a landslide, had been widely seen as representing stability at a time when Mongolia is showing tentative signs of recovery from an economic crisis brought about by a dramatic drop in global commodity prices.
Battulga campaigned on a "Mongolia First" policy, borrowing the language of President Donald Trump. He promised to be "a patriotic president" seeking "equal cooperation" with neighbors like China, which he has criticized in the past.
Battulga's company, Genco, is one of Mongolia's largest, with businesses including hotels, media, banking, alcohol, horsemeat and a Genghis Khan-themed complex. He was agriculture minister between 2012 and 2014 and is a former member of parliament, as well as president of the Mongolian Judo Association.
Ganbaatar, a self-described feng shui master and "Robin Hood" for the masses, has claimed Mongolia should get a better deal with Rio Tinto and its copper and gold mine, Oyu Tolgoi.
Around two-thirds of nearly 2 million registered voters cast ballots, the election commission said.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, resource-rich Mongolia has been roiled by financial upheaval and the increasing draw of China's economic and political influence that competes with its ties with the democratic West, especially the United States.
Foreign investment in Mongolia has slumped in recent years following weaker commodity prices and high-profile disputes between the government and large investors including Rio Tinto. Mongolia's economy grew just 1 percent last year, down from 17.5 percent in 2011, when it was the world's fastest-growing. It now has $23 billion in debt, more than double the size of its economy. Unemployment is roughly 9 percent, with about one in five Mongolians living in poverty.
The country recently secured a $5.5 billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout to stem its financial crisis, with a $500 million bond repayment due in January 2018. Enkhbold's party pledges to continue the IMF's program, including higher taxes and spending cuts, while Ganbaatar has criticized the IMF.
For 30-year old district government office worker and mother Tserendejid Bayanbaatar, restoring the economy and creating jobs for young people were top concerns in the election.
"I want the future president to support young people and young families, support their work environment and create conditions for stable incomes," Bayanbaatar said.
Avirmed Dangaa, an accountant and former municipal official, said creating stability was important.
"Trust of foreign investors is restored if the government is stable," said Dangaa, who favored Enkhbold.
Battulga has a large following among urban entrepreneurs and youth.
"I don't like corruption and favoritism, which is prevalent everywhere in all levels of Mongolian government. I voted against these corrupt officials," said Enkhmaa, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who gave only her first name.