Mongolia's candidates for the forthcoming presidential election Ganbaatar Sainkhuu (L), Enkhbold Miyegombo (C) and Battulga Khaltmaa take part in a televised debate in Ulan Bator on June 24, 2017. Photograph: (AFP)
The resource-rich nation of just three million has struggled in recent years with mounting debt and low voter turnout
Mongolians cast ballots on Monday to choose between a horse breeder, a judoka and a feng shui master in a presidential election rife with corruption scandals and nationalist rhetoric.
From its sprawling steppes to its capital and even in yurts serving as polling stations, people began to vote in the landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China that was once viewed as an oasis of democracy full of economic promise.
But the resource-rich nation of just three million has struggled in recent years with mounting debt and low voter turnout.
The next president will inherit a $5.5 billion International Monetary Fund-led bailout designed to stabilise its economy and lessen its dependence on China, which purchases 80 per cent of Mongolian exports.
But voters have heard little from the three candidates about unemployment and jobs -- their top concerns in opinion polls -- as campaigns have instead focused on their opponents' allegedly shady pasts.
Among the accusations are a 60 billion tugrik ($25 million) scheme to sell government posts, hefty offshore accounts and a clandestine donation from a member of a South Korean church -- all of which the candidates have denied.
The campaign was also marked by moments of anti-Chinese sentiment, with candidate Mieygombo Enkhbold of the parliament-ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP) publishing his family tree to rebuff claims that he had Chinese blood.
"(The election) is truly testing the nerves of voters," Gerel Orgil, a Mongolian public opinion analyst, told AFP. "It's been like watching a bullfight."
Enkhbold, a horse breeder and former mayor of Ulan Bator, is considered the establishment candidate. He faces brash businessman Khaltmaa Battulga of the outgoing president's opposition Democratic Party, a property tycoon and former head of the judo association.
The third candidate is Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, a former independent who once headed a feng shui practise.
While Enkhbold and Battulga are considered the main contenders, Ganbaatar is expected to garner enough votes to trigger the country's first ever run-off.
Several voters described the campaigns as "dark" and accused the candidates of using smear jobs to distract from real issues.
"Ganbaatar is the only one who speaks the voice of the regular people of Mongolia," said Zundui Gombojav, a 60-year-old unemployed disabled man. "For 27 years, we have chosen the two largest parties, but they have done nothing."
Other voters were concerned that electing Enkhbold would give absolute power to the MPP, which already holds the majority of seats in parliament.
Daram Erdebayar, a 61-year-old retired teacher, had previously been loyal to the MPP, but decided to support Battulga after a recording surfaced in which Enkhbold and other MPP officials were allegedly discussing a plan to hand public jobs to the highest bidders.
He said several teachers in the capital's "ger" districts -- slums comprised of yurts and ramshackle houses on the city outskirts -- were abruptly fired in recent years after working in the same schools for decades.
His colleagues suspected that they were replaced with individuals who had bribed the city education authority, Erdebayar said.
Not everyone favoured shaking up the status quo. Lying in bed in the yurt that she shares with her three children, Jamiynsurengiin Olzod said all she wanted from the government was a grant to buy a new sewing machine.
The 35-year-old seamstress lives off child welfare allowances and sales of handmade traditional garments during Mongolia's two biggest holidays, the Lunar New Year and Naadam.
"Enkhbold has experience and is known abroad," she said. "His reputation can help him get foreign aid."