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Mongolia headed towards first presidential runoff

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Ulan Bator (AFP)

Mongolia appeared headed Tuesday for its first ever presidential election runoff, but polling officials delayed an expected announcement, adding drama after a campaign fraught with corruption scandals.

The suspense capped a campaign marked by mudslinging between the candidates that overshadowed voter concerns over unemployment in the debt-laden country wedged between Russia and China.

A run off is expected to be held within two weeks after none of the three candidates secured more than 50 percent of the votes.

Former judoka Khaltmaa Battulga of the opposition Democratic Party was leading on 38 percent with all polling stations reporting following Monday's vote, according to results released by the General Election Committee.

The race for the second spot in the runoff was tight.

After trailing in the early count overnight, parliament speaker Mieygombo Enkhbold of the Mongolian People's Party (MPP) pulled ahead of Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) early Tuesday, with just a 0.1 percentage point separating the two men.

But the election committee had yet to make an official announcement early Tuesday.

The delay angered Ganbaatar's MPRP, which is seeking to break the domination of the main parties.

"The General Election Committee intentionally delayed the reports from the polling stations," Erdenebileg Erdenejamiyan, a senior MPRP official, told reporters. "We believe they are changing the results."

- Slew of scandals -

On Monday, Mongolians voted in the capital, the country's sprawling steppes and even in yurts serving as polling stations.

"I didn't like the campaigns, I felt like I had no one to vote for," Batbayar Nyamjargal, 24, said after voting at a polling station next to a playground in Ulan Bator.

"I thought about the decision for a long time, and I'm still not 100 percent sure I made the right choice. All three of them had issues."

The resource-rich nation of just three million has struggled in recent years with mounting debt.

The next president will inherit a $5.5 billion bailout led by the International Monetary Fund and designed to stabilise its economy and lessen dependence on China, which purchases 80 percent of Mongolian exports.

But voters heard little from the three candidates about unemployment and jobs, their top concerns according to opinion polls. Campaigning has instead focused on their opponents' allegedly shady pasts.

A video showed Enkhbold and two MPP officials discussing a $60 billion tugrik ($25 million) plan for selling government positions.

Battulga, a brash businessman, was haunted by reports of offshore accounts attached to his name, as well as the arrests of several of his associates by Mongolia's anti-corruption body last spring.

And Ganbaatar appeared in a video in which he allegedly received a $44,000 donation from a member of the "Moonies," or Unification Church, a South Korean-based Christian group that critics consider a cult.

All three rejected the allegations against them.

- 'Like watching a bullfight' -

The campaign was also marked by moments of anti-Chinese sentiment. Enkhbold published his family tree to rebuff claims that he had Chinese blood.

"(The election) is truly testing the nerves of voters," analyst Gerel Orgil told AFP. "It's been like watching a bullfight."

Several voters described the campaigns as "dark" and accused the candidates of using smear tactics to distract from real issues.

"The biggest problem is that Mongolians don't trust each other. On my Facebook, all I see is fighting. We should be harmonious and civil to each other. We need a president who can unite us," said Nomuna Gankuyag, a recent graduate of Seoul National University in her 30s and an Enkhbold supporter.

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