Sumo star, singer enliven Mongolia election campaign

ULAN BATOR Sat Jun 28, 2008 5:47pm IST

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ULAN BATOR (Reuters) - What do a sumo wrestling star and the owner of an Irish pub have in common?

Both are running for parliament in Mongolia's general election on Sunday, adding zest to the country's lively young democracy.

Davaa Batbayar, 35, has been back home only a year since his sumo career in Japan, but he is confident his wrestling reputation will help him at the ballot box.

"On the one hand, everyone knows me from sumo," said Batbayar, who running is on the opposition Democratic Party's ticket. "They may wonder, if you're in sumo, do you have anything in your brain?"

"But I think I have the best qualities compared to the other 28 candidates because I am the bravest. I've had to compete since childhood and I have the courage needed to make the big changes."

For Gankhuu, 41, who owns the Grand Khaan pub, a popular Ulan Bator nightspot, his side job as the frontman for "Beer", a local cover band is in itself political.

"We had a closed system under Russia and the Beatles for us seemed like democracy and freedom. That's why I started to sing," said Gankhuu, who like many Mongolians, goes by one name. He is a candidate for the Civil Will Party.

Home of Genghis Khan and ruled as a Soviet satellite for much of the last century, Mongolia has since embraced market reforms, and was praised by U.S. President George W. Bush as a model of democracy in Central Asia.

Urban candidates like Batbayar and Gankhuu live a world apart from rural Mongolians, many of whom are nomadic herders on the vast steppes that extend from the Gobi desert border with China to the edge of Siberia.

But both Batbayar and Gankhuu spoke of the need to develop faster and do more to alleviate poverty and corruption.

"It's now time for Mongolians like us who have been abroad and have seen what is there and then come back and seen the situation here to make a change," said Batbayar, who wants to improve living standards for herders who move into the city.

The only drawback to the sumo wrestler's new life as a politician is that he's too busy campaigning to eat anything but Mongolian food, which consists largely of mutton and yak-based products.

"What I'd really like is to go back to Japan and have some good fresh fish," he said, his bulky frame perched on the edge of a wooden chair.

Gankhuu, who studied in the former Czechoslovakia, wants to build a subway system in the capital to ease the city's smog.

"Most people say, 'you're running a good business, you have friends, why try to be a politician'," he said. "We built this democracy 19 years ago, but looking back, we could have developed much faster."

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