ULAN BATOR Mongolia's incumbent president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who wants more controls on foreign mining investments, has emerged as the winner of Wednesday's polls with a narrow majority of votes cast, the country's election commission said on Thursday.
Elbegdorj, 50, who has served as president since 2009, was the overwhelming favorite in the contest, played out amid worries about Mongolia's faltering economy as well as the growing role of foreign mining firms.
The commission said Elbegdorj got 50.23 percent of the votes, beating a former wrestling champion, Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu of the Mongolian People's Party, and health minister Udval Natsag, of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party.
The lower-than-expected margin of victory could be traced to low turnout, said Julian Dierkes, an expert in Mongolian politics at the University of British Columbia, adding that participation was 10 percent lower than the last election.
"The consensus was that Elbegdorj was winning and I suspect that a lot of potential voters thought he was winning anyway, and didn't vote," said Dierkes, who is in Ulan Bator to monitor the election.
Elbegdorj's narrow victory, even if it is not contested by the opposition, is not expected to allay the concerns of foreign investors worried about growing government interference in the country's booming mining sector.
The win preserves the dominance of the Mongolian Democratic Party, which won the most seats, though not an absolute majority, in last year's parliamentary vote, and heads a coalition government keen to regulate foreign investments.
Elbegdorj is a free-market advocate, but his government has increasingly adopted a more "resource nationalist" approach, with laws to give the country a bigger stake in "strategic assets", such as mines.
It also aims to rework a landmark 2009 investment pact to develop the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine.
The vote took place amid rising concern over Mongolia's resource-dependent economy, with falling commodity prices and weakening demand from China expected to erode growth and undermine spending plans.
The economy grew 12 percent last year and 17 percent in 2011, as mining investment poured in and mineral exports to China surged.
But growth could slow to 5.5 percent in 2013, the Mongolian Investment Banking Group said this week, if the Oyu Tolgoi project is not launched on schedule.
Mongolia is in dispute with Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto over how it will repatriate profits from Oyu Tolgoi, whose launch has been delayed twice this month.
A controversial new mining bill championed by Elbegdorj will also be high on the agenda.
"The biggest implication is continuity -- his campaign was that he had done well for four years and wanted a chance to do more," said Dierkes. "But mining and resources is on the top of everyone's agenda and here he will keep going."
(Reporting by Max Duncan, Terrence Edwards and David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)