ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Mongolia goes to the polls on Wednesday to choose its sixth democratically-elected president, with the ruling Mongolian People's Party (MPP) on the cusp of consolidating its power following a low-key campaign crimped by COVID-19 curbs.
The vote is the first after constitutional amendments stripped the office of some of its powers and limited holders to a single six-year term, so keeping incumbent Khaltmaa Battulga of the opposition Democratic Party from seeking re-election.
Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, forced to resign as prime minister after protests this year, is the favourite to take over the presidency for the MPP, which already controls parliament and government.
The Democratic Party is fielding Sodnomzundui Erdene to replace Battulga.
Campaign events in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, have been kept to a minimum as it battles COVID-19. Daily infections hit a record over the last week and Mongolia's deaths stand at 325.
"Because of coronavirus there is very little election campaign information, and I will probably decide at the time," said a 22-year-old voter, Ganbayar Gantulga.
About 1,000 of Khurelsukh's supporters held a rally outside a concert hall on Saturday, but he moved his campaign online a few hours later after his Labor Party rival Dangaasuren Enkhbat, the third election candidate, tested positive for coronavirus.
Mongolia's hybrid political system gives parliament the power to make laws and appoint governments, but it also gives the president a veto over legislation.
Voters usually chose opposition party candidates as president. Although winners must relinquish party allegiance, they have tended to block legislation on party lines, creating political deadlock that some say has held back the country.
Although businessman and former wrestler Battulgahe failed to overturn the decision to exclude him from this year's elections, he remains popular among some voters.
"Battulga has done quite a lot for the people," said Tsetsegmaa Khasbat, a 67-year-old retiree. "He is a person who can get things done."
However, others have been disillusioned by his failure to take on the ruling elite, said Enkhtsetseg Dagva, elections programme manager at the Open Society Forum, a non-government group.
"Battulga struck deals with the current MPP that were detrimental to Mongolia's democracy," she said.
The MPP-controlled parliament agreed to give Battulga authority to sack and replace judges and anti-graft officials, which critics saw as part of a wider power grab.
Neither the party nor Khurelsukh responded to Reuters' requests for comment.
"MONGOLIA WITHOUT DICTATORSHIP"
The Democratic Party's campaign slogan this year is "Mongolia without Dictatorship", and candidate Erdene told Reuters that an MPP victory would see the country shift further towards a one-party state.
"Today if you are not a member (of MPP), if you are not affiliated to the ruling party, it is no longer possible to do business as you choose, study what you choose and live in the way you choose."
Both major parties have accused each other of undermining Mongolia's 30-year-old democracy.
"Both parties are right," said Sumati Luvsandendev, a political analyst and pollster with the Sant Maral Foundation, a Mongolian consultancy.
"Both sides are 'undermining democracy' and it is not easy to say which side is doing better."
Sumati said he expected the MPP to emerge victorious.
"The (Democratic Party) campaign doesn't exist, while outsider Enkhbat is doing quite well in consolidating protest votes in urban areas...(but) his chances against the mighty MPP system are very little," he said.
(Reporting by Anand Tumurtogoo in Ulaanbaatar and David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)