- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia | Thousands of Mongolians turned out at the main square of the capital to celebrate the swearing in of their new president, Elbegdorj Tsakhiagiin, on Thursday, marking the first time the opposition Democratic Party has held the office in the five presidential elections since Mongolia became a democracy in 1990.

The Harvard-educated, two-time prime minister Mr. Elbegdorj defeated incumbent president Enkhbayryn Nambaryan of the People’s Revolutionary Party on May 24 by capturing 51 percent of the vote on a platform of reforming the judiciary, fighting corruption, and finding a way to give more of the country’s mineral wealth back to the people.

“My heart feels like it will explode. I am so happy,” said Munkhum Munkhbayar, 51, a former accountant now living in poverty on the streets of the capital.

Whether Mr. Elbegdorj can deliver on his promises to the 2.7 million people of this landlocked country - where one-third of the population lives below the poverty line on less than $5 a day - remains to be seen. But his supporters are hoping for the best.

“Everyone knows corruption is the biggest problem in our society,” said D. Munkhbantar, 43, a mining engineer for the past 20 years and supporter of the new president who turned out for the celebration. “I hope he can do something about it.”

Dressed in a traditional Mongolian hat and tunic, or deel, the 46-year-old Elbegdorj made it clear in his inaugural address that he will make these reforms his top priority.

“A corrupt government is not a strong government,” said Mr. Elbegdorj in his inaugural speech. “We must stop all corruption in the government from this day forward.”

Many of his supporters Thursday compared his speaking style and his message of hope and change to that of current President Obama.

“I feel that the people are waiting for a lot of things, a better financial situation, less corruption, and more truth,” Mr. Elbegdorj said. “I understand it won’t be easy to do in a short time.

I will never forget what the Mongolian people told me they wanted me to do.” While Mr. Elbegdorj has the power of his office to reform the judiciary system, most political power within the government lies within parliament that is still under the control of the People’s Revolutionary Party. In Mongolia, parliament can overturn a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote.

Though all was peaceful at Sukhbaatar Square this day, last July 1, five people died and around 300 were injured during vodka-fueled riots in the central plaza of Ulan Bator after the People’s Revolutionary Party won elections amid widespread allegations of vote tampering and vote buying.

During the inauguration ceremony on Thursday young Mongolians handed out cards promoting a Mongolian-produced movie 7/1 which centers on the riots last year.

In the May presidential election, Mr. Elbegdorj drew most of his support from the capital’s urban population while the incumbent Mr. Enkhbayar took much of the rural vote.

Ms. N. Dulmaa, 57, who turned out at the inauguration with her granddaughter in tow, said she was skeptical that the two parties could work together and that she believed Mr. Elbegdorj actually took a much higher percentage because vote buying outside Ulan Bator is still rampant.

Overall though she was hopeful that the democratic process in her country was finally taking a more mature shape.

“For seventy years the communists had been in power, but now some of them are going over to the Democratic Party. We can see the winds of change.”

The Mongolian economy, which relies on mining of gold, copper, coal and uranium for much of its wealth, has been hit hard by recent declines in mineral prices. The global economic crisis has dropped cashmere and livestock prices as well, striking herders and traders especially hard.

Both these factors have made Mongolia turn increasingly to influential neighbors Russia and China for loans, though on Thursday the U.S.-leaning Mr. Elbegdorj said he would continue to strengthen his country’s relationship with both the U.S. and Japan.

Mr. Elbegdorj has pledged to reform how the mining system operates in the country and re-negotiate mining concessions with foreign companies.

On Wednesday Mr. Elbegdorj said he was pushing to change a deal with Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines that would give the government half of the profits of the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine in the south of the Gobi Desert. The development was first proposed in 2001, but has been delayed due to changes in government policies and disagreements over how to share the profits.

During his inauguration speech, Mr. Elbegdorj said his government would give top priority to the Oyu Tolgoi project and that the outcome will “be for the benefit of workers, not the big bosses.”

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