Populist business tycoon inaugurated as Mongolia's president

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — A populist business tycoon and ex-judo champion was inaugurated Monday as Mongolia's new president, pledging to provide greater benefits for the county's 3 million people from their vast mineral wealth despite a slump in commodity prices that has battered the landlocked Asian nation's economy.

Khaltmaa Battulga of the Democratic Party garnered 50.6 percent of the vote to win a runoff Friday against his establishment opponent, Miyegombo Enkhbold of the Mongolian People's Party. Enkhbold, a horse salesman turned politician, continues to serve as speaker of parliament and took part in Monday's ceremony.

"I will pay special attention to the fact that poverty and unemployment have developed to a serious extent," Battulga said in his inaugural address. "Let me assure you that this will be a joint effort with the parliament and government. Joint forces always bring success."

Battulga told The Associated Press on Saturday that he wanted a "win-win situation for everyone" when it came to foreign investment, which has fallen off sharply in recent years following weaker commodity prices and high-profile disputes between the government and large investors such as mining giant Rio Tinto.

Mongolia's economy grew just 1 percent last year, down from 17.5 percent in 2011, the fastest rate in the world that year. The country now strains under $23 billion in debt, more than double the size of its economy.

The new president must work with Enkhbold's Mongolian People's Party, which holds 65 of the 76 seats in parliament, to turn the economy around. Mongolia, which is sandwiched between China and Russia, recently obtained its biggest-ever bailout led by the International Monetary Fund, worth $5.5 billion.

Battulga vowed to boost ties with China and Russia further, as well as with so-called "third neighbors" such as the United States. He also said he would boost domestic production and is confident in Mongolia's future growth.

His company, Genco, is one of Mongolia's largest, with businesses including hotels, media, banking, alcohol, horsemeat and a Genghis Khan-themed complex. He was also minister of agriculture between 2012 and 2014 and is a former member of parliament as well as president of the Mongolian Judo Association.

However, his reputation took a hit last year following an investigation by the Independent Authority Against Corruption into an alleged misappropriation of funds for a new railway during his time as minister of transport. Battulga is also reported to have various offshore accounts, an increasingly sensitive topic among Mongolians fed up with kickbacks and embezzlement.

Despite that, he vowed in his inaugural address to end corruption, saying, "I won't allow fat wallets to get fatter by taking money from the people."

In line with tradition, Battulga will open the country's biggest annual celebration, the Naadam Games, at the central stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar on Tuesday.

After the hardships of recent years, many Mongolians said they are hoping for a fresh start under Battulga.

"A lot of people hoped for this day. I also made my choice for my country, for my future and for my kids," said high school teacher Bathuyag Radnaa, 33.

Oyundalai Natjav, a founding member of the Democratic Party, said she hopes Battulga will rid politics of moneyed interests.

"So I am really hoping he will make this his priority, let us sleep with easy minds and free Mongolia from its debts," the 58-year-old retiree said.

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