ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — On the road from the airport, the face of a ruling party candidate smiles in a hypnotic series of signs fastened to every light pole. In town, drivers caught in traffic jams contemplate billboards that show the prime minister grinning with Mongolia’s Olympic wrestlers, and of Mongolian rappers endorsing the ruling former Communists as the “hip-hop party.”
The center-left government seems to be pushing hard for victory in national elections on Sunday, even though the economy has been growing by 5 percent a year, international tourism has increased 15 percent, and the public approval rating has been hovering around 60 percent in recent polls. As part of its campaign, the government is blanketing the populated pockets of this Alaska-size nation with billboards, television ads, and concerts by the nation’s top singers, many with exclusive contracts until Election Day.
“It’s like a well-oiled car,” Oyun Sanjaarsuren, the most popular opposition candidate, said in a recent interview in her office in a downtown district where progovernment billboards seemed to outnumber opposition billboards by 10 to 1.
Two blocks away, Otgonbayar Yondon, secretary to the governing party, brushed aside such complaints, saying: “We are simply better organized and better planned. Our campaign ads have appeared according to plan.”
But the government may have misread Mongolia, a rare island of feisty multiparty politics in Central Asia. A nomadic lifestyle combined with near universal literacy has forged a people with strong streaks of individualism and political contrariness.
The slick and omnipresent advertising campaign is leaving the governing Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party feeling dangerously overexposed.
“Mongolians feel sorry for the underdog,” L. Tungalag, the party’s international relations director, said in an interview. She charged that the opposition Motherland Democratic Coalition “decided to stop all propaganda and advertisements, so only M.P.R.P. is doing advertising. They are saying, ‘We are poor people and can’t afford to do anything.”‘
Under the governing party’s tactics, campaign workers strong-armed business owners, forcing them to cover up their business advertisements with ruling party propaganda for the 39 days of the parliamentary campaign. Now, sensing a backlash, it is debating whether or not to scale back the advertising.
This effort to read public opinion is rare in a region that is dominated by the family autarchies of Central Asia and the one-party politics of China.
“I would not consider Mongolia part of the ‘stan’ countries,” John H. Poepsel, an American political adviser, said here, referring to the Islamic countries to the West. “Politically, socially, economically, Mongolia is much closer to” South Korea, Mr. Poepsel said.
On the economic front, Mongolia’s ruling party has moved in 15 years from Communist orthodoxy to membership in the center-left Socialist International movement. Welcoming foreign investment, Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar recently traveled 50 miles north of here to inaugurate a $75 million Canadian-owned gold mine, the first of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign mining investment expected in the coming years.
In this booming capital sprawling along a valley in the steppes, construction cranes pierce a gray haze raised by an urban fleet of private vehicles that expanded by 19 percent in the last year alone.
On paper, Mr. Enkhbayar, a British-trained linguist, appears invincible. His party controls 72 of the 76 seats in Parliament. In April, he ranked as Mongolia’s most admired politician, with a 59 percent approval rating in a national poll commissioned by Mr. Poepsel’s International Republican Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes democracy. But in the 2000 elections, the opposition won 46 percent of the popular vote, losing many districts in tight races. The April public opinion poll indicated that the opposition ranks were swollen with voters who were unemployed or self-employed, and who worried about housing, jobs and corruption.
While the capital’s new squatter suburbs are expected to vote for the opposition, dissenting voices can be heard in unexpected places. One hundred miles east of Ulan Bator, Ulzii Ganbaatar, a 29-year-old herder, predicted setbacks for the official party, saying, “I am sure that this year Democrats will win more seats than at the last election.”Top