Mongolia's ruling party won a landslide election victory to retain an overwhelming majority in parliament -- a reward from voters who approved of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to near-complete results on Thursday.
The Mongolian People's Party of Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa now faces the task of keeping the economy afloat as businesses struggle under virus containment measures and closed borders.
The MPP will have 63 of 76 seats in the legislature, two fewer than before but still a huge majority to rule the landlocked country of three million people squeezed between Russia and China.
The opposition Democratic Party won 10 seats, according to 99 percent of votes counted following Wednesday's vote.
An independent and candidates from two new third parties won the remaining seats. The Election Commission will confirm the results later on Thursday.
"Voters did obviously reward the handling of the corona crisis by the Mongolian government and put their trust in the leadership of Prime Minister Khurelsukh," Niels Hegewisch, country director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German non-profit foundation, told AFP.
"Certainly, a victory of this magnitude comes with a great responsibility. Economically, Mongolia is facing tough times," he said.
Despite its mineral wealth, the country's economy has been weak and required a $5.5 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund in 2017.
The pandemic has not helped, with cafes, restaurants and pubs ailing as the government imposed early closing times as part of coronavirus measures. Schools have been closed since January.
Coal exports have fallen due to lower demand and prices, and border closures. They were down by more than half to 6.2 million tons in the first five months of the year compared to the same period in 2019.
A number of corruption scandals have also erupted in recent years and there is growing anxiety about graft in the young democracy, which ended decades as a Soviet satellite in 1990.
Despite calls by some for the election to be delayed due to the pandemic, three-quarters of two million eligible voters cast their ballots.
Voters queued two metres (yards) apart to enter, with medical staff checking temperatures, passing out hand disinfectant and masks, and providing single-use plastic gloves to fill out ballot papers.
"I think it's good to organise our election as planned even though there is a pandemic," said Amarzaya Enkhbayar, a 35-year-old voter who runs her own business.
"These elected decision-makers must improve our life. We have to do something for the development of our country," she told AFP after voting in Ulaanbaatar.
- 'I want change' -
About 8,000 Mongolians are currently stranded abroad and protests inside the country calling for their return have been broken up by authorities on the grounds that they break social distancing rules.
There have only been about 200 reported coronavirus cases in Mongolia -- most imported from Russia -- and no confirmed fatalities.
"I thought the election should be delayed," argued another voter, 39-year-old Enkhtsetseg Bandi.
"However, the state is spending billions to organise this election, so I must participate not to waste our budget."
The country's two main political parties broke bans on gatherings of more than 30 people by holding big campaign rallies and ignoring social distancing rules.
There were a record 606 candidates, including 121 independents. But voters chose the ruling party.
Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg, professor of political science at the Mongolian State University of Education, said the country's majoritarian system favours the big parties.
"If we keep this system, the MPP will win forever," he said.
Munkhzaya Ankhbaatar, a 19-year-old car parts salesman, said he had done his homework on the candidates before voting.
"I studied all the parties' agenda," he said. "I like the MPP most, so I voted for it."
A Mongolian voter undergoes a temperature check before casting his ballot at a polling station in Ulaanbaatar
The Mongolian People's Party of Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, seen here voting in Ulaanbaatar, was handed an overwhelming parliamentary majority by voters
Electoral staff collect the vote of an elderly Mongolian at his home because the man cannot visit a polling station
Not all candidates in Mongolia's election respected social distancing rules -- this photo shows residents posing for a selfie with a candidate (C - in green) of the ruling Mongolian People's Party during a campaign event in Ulaanbaatar