updated 5/22/2005 11:10:52 PM ET 2005-05-23T03:10:52

A candidate from Mongolia’s former Communist Party won the presidency in an election that drew nomadic herders who arrived on horses at polling stations on the country’s vast steppe.

The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, the former Communist party now known as MRRP, was voted out in 1996 but re-elected in 2000, and now appears to be riding new popularity.

Its candidate, Nambariin Enkhbayar, received 53 percent of votes cast on Sunday, said J. Yadamsuren, chairman of the Federal Election Commission — above the 50 percent minimum required to avoid a run-off election against any of Enkhbayar’s three rivals.

His victory came amid nostalgia for the stability of one-party rule and Soviet subsidies that halted in 1990, and his own promises to end chronic poverty in this sprawling, sparsely populated nation of 2.5 million people wedged between Russia and China.

“All the candidates sounded the same to me, so I just voted for my old party,” said 62-year-old Batsukh Tseveenchimed of the MPRP.

Presidency grows in importance
Mongolia has a parliamentary system, with a government run by a prime minister. But the presidency has grown in importance as the country went through a series of governments over the past decade.

The MPRP’s rivals complain that the party still dominates election bodies that register voters and run polling stations. Foreign observers were visiting polling stations on Sunday, but there were no immediate reports of misconduct.

Government radio said turnout was more than 70 percent — low by Mongolian standards. It wasn’t clear if the number reflected voter apathy following repeated changes of government and protests over claims of official corruption.

Turnout was 83 percent the last time Mongolians voted for president in 2001, and in other elections is usually above 80 percent.

Enkhbayar, a former prime minister, campaigned on a promise to do more to attract foreign investment.

The second-place candidate, Mendsaikhanin Enkhsaikhan of the Democratic Party, drew his support from anti-communists and defied police to take the streets in 1990 and bring down one-party rule in this country. Enkhsaikhan won 20 percent of the vote.

The Republican Party’s Bazarsadyn Jargalsaikhan, one of the country’s richest men, won 14 percent of the vote.

The Motherland Party’s Badarchyn Erdenebat — who supported a national referendum to give more power to the presidency in a country where parliament is splintered among many parties and the prime minister changes frequently — won 11 percent of the vote.

Mongolia once launched the Soviet bloc’s most ambitious privatization program, selling off government businesses and giving state-owned herds of millions of cattle and sheep to traditional herders.

But the country has struggled since the MPRP allowed multiparty democracy in 1990 following public demonstrations.

High unemployment
State companies and farms closed, and private businesses have failed to create enough jobs to re-employ thousands of jobless people. A series of droughts and harsh winters have devastated herders, many of whom had never worked on their own, and suffered heavy losses.

The country’s main exports are cashmere and copper, leaving it at the mercy of fluctuating commodity markets.

Elections last year produced a parliament split between the MPRP and its rivals, forcing them to form an awkward coalition government. The country’s current president, Natsagiin Bagabandi, is from the MPRP.

Voters began lining up before polls opened, many dressed in traditional Mongolian wool robes.

Unlike under communism, “now we can choose,” said Janchiv Tserev, 82, who wore his World War II medals pinned to his dark red tunic.

“Before we could vote for only one person. Now there are four candidates,” he said.

Poll workers in sport utility vehicles took ballot boxed to elderly nomads in gers, the traditional white felt tents that dot the Mongolian countryside.

“It’s good to be old, because people come out and take our vote,” said Tseveenchimed, the 62-year-old voter, as she offered bread and tea to six poll workers who visited her tent.

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