By Joseph Campbell and Terrence Edwards
ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Polling stations opened throughout Mongolia's cities, townships and prairies on Monday as nearly two million residents were asked to choose a new president amid worries about corruption and the state of the resource-dominated economy.
Most voters expect a two-horse race between the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP) candidate Miyeegombo Enkhbold, an investment-friendly career politician, and former martial arts star and resource nationalist Khaltmaa Battulga of the opposition Democratic Party.
But Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the breakaway Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) could win enough votes to force a second round in two weeks.
Herders living in Mongolia's countryside, who represent around a third of the population, have already cast ballots at mobile polling booths in an election seen as a referendum on both economic policy and China's role in Mongolia's development.
Remote and landlocked Mongolia, best known as the birthplace of Mongol emperor Chinggis Khaan, is a parliamentary democracy and elected a new government last year. The presidential vote will serve as a crucial barometer of public opinion as the ruling MPP tries to steer the country out of an economic crisis.
Once Asia's fastest growing economies, Mongolia has seen foreign investment and commodity export earnings collapse, leaving it struggling to pay debts following years of generous government spending. The new government secured a $5.5 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund in May after implementing austerity measures.
"The electorate is not happy with IMF taxes and cuts," said Dale Choi, analyst and chief executive of the Altan Bumba Financial Group in Ulaanbaatar, in an emailed note. "But the MPP campaigned hard to explain why Mongolia is where it is now."
Under Mongolia's parliamentary system, the prime minister runs the government but the president has powers to veto legislation and make judicial appointments.
All three presidential candidates have promised to pull the country out of its current crisis, restore the stagnant economy to its former "boom" status, and reassess ties with neighbors, including China.
Enkhbold has run under the slogan "United Mongolia will win". Polling is not permitted during campaigning, but according to a national survey in March, Enkhbold's MPP - which won by a landslide in the parliamentary vote last year - is more trusted when it comes to running the country.
Battulga, who is suspicious of neighboring China, Mongolia's major investor, also says he will restore Mongolia's "pride" under the slogan "Mongolia will win".
The populist politician, who derives his fashion attire from mafia boss Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" films and owns a Chinggis Khaan-themed amusement park, told Reuters at a recent rally he will win because his heart is "devoted" to Mongolia.
The election has also been played out under the shadow of corruption allegations engulfing all three candidates.
"(Corruption) is coming to such a level, to its tipping point, and where people may vote for completely new people," Ulaanbaatar-based political commentator Jargalsaikhan Dambadarja said.
(Writing by David Stanway in SHANGHAI; Editing by Michael Perry)