Tavan Tolgoi (Mongolia) (AFP) - Deep in the Mongolian steppe, a gigantic hole in the ground holds billions of tonnes of riches that politicians say will fuel the transformation of the landlocked and sparsely populated country into a prosperous modern nation.
But after years of missed deadlines and mounting corruption, voters' once bright hopes for Mongolia's young democracy are turning as dark as the coal of Tavan Tolgoi ahead of a general election Wednesday.
Outside Tsogttsetsii, the company town near the open-pit mine, articulated lorries trail plumes of white dust across the Gobi Desert. They roll past yurts -- known as gers -- plastered with portraits of candidates who pledge to turn its immense resources into new jobs, better schools and improved health care.
But the project suffered years of delays as authorities wrangled with foreign firms and a multi-billion IPO was put on hold. And now coal prices have slumped.
The capital Ulan Bator is plastered with campaign posters, but voters increasingly feel helpless and frustrated in the face of mounting corruption and economic malaise. Many say they would rather not vote than back either of the two major parties.
"Mongolia has every natural resource, but we are one of the poorest countries", said one of the rig drivers, named Otgonbayar, looking from his modest ger on to the mountains of waste bordering the mine.
"Politicians just pass laws that are profitable for them."
It is a far cry from the optimism of the country's democratic revolution of 1990, when it threw off the Soviet yoke, or of the more recent boom years -- when growth hit a world-leading 17 percent in 2011 as commodity prices soared.
Election turnout has shown a steady decline, falling to the mid-60s in 2012, according to Ashleigh Whelan, country director for the International Republican Institute (IRI) which conducts pre-election polling.
"What we've seen here is a level of apathy in the electoral process which I think is related to the fact that citizens don't feel they have adequate choice or adequate consultation in the process," she said.
Voters believe corruption is a "major problem", she added.
"There needs to be more to address the issues, to enable greater confidence by citizens in the political system here."
- 'Fried mutton' -
But two months before the election, the constitutional court changed the system for electing the 76-member Great State Khural, the parliament, from proportional representation to majoritarian constituencies. This greatly reduced third parties' chances in what many see as the result of a tacit power-sharing agreement between the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Mongolian People's Party.
Previous elections featured a wider range of choices, said Julian Dierkes, an expert on the country's politics at the University of British Columbia.
"It's a two-horse race this time, because proportional representation was abandoned," he said. "The DP and the MPP will be the only relevant parties."
Byambaagiin Bayarmagnai, a 37-year old environmental manager at one of the Tavan Tolgoi companies, said he was frustrated at the lack of choice but "life was better when the MPP was ruling the country".
Tavan Tolgoi is one of several mega projects that politicians promised would raise the country out of poverty. They also include Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto's huge copper and gold mine Oyu Tolgoi.
But riches from the countless resources buried under the steppe have so far proved as insubstantial as a desert mirage.
Slowing growth in China, by far Mongolia's biggest trade partner, sent commodities prices collapsing, while political disagreements about who should own the country's resources -- and at what price -- have stymied development.
A previous DP-MPP coalition government gave every Mongolian shares in one of the Tavan Tolgoi companies -- followed, before the next election, by a buy-back deal that prompted accusations of vote-buying.
Now DP Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg has announced a second buyback, with more than a million Mongolians -- one third of the population -- registering for the deal.
The citizens of Tsogttsetsii express confidence Tavan Tolgoi will one day make their town wealthy. But many still took the opportunity to cash in, such as cafeteria worker Gunsmaa who called the offer a "political show".
Mongolians are just trying to "put fried mutton on the table", said UBC's Dierkes.
"It gives you a sense of how many people are desperate enough that they need cash now," he said.
IRI's Whelan said 61 percent of Mongolians believe "the country is going in the wrong direction", far more than before the 2012 poll.
"There is no way democracy will end, there will still be democracy," said driver Bagakhuu, 36, waiting in front of a small restaurant at Tsogttsetsii's main crossroads.
But he added sheepishly: "I think that we have the wrong democracy."