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Cambodia awaits results of poll that only PM Hun Sen can win

Manan Vatsyayana, AFP | Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) casts his ballot in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018.

Hours after polls closed in Sunday’s vote, Cambodia’s ruling party claimed victory in a national election that rights groups criticised for voter intimidation and the absence of any significant challenger to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

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While official results in Sunday’s poll were not expected until mid-August, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said the party had won “80 percent of all the votes and we will win not less than 100 [out of 125] seats”.

Although 20 parties contested the election, the only one with the popularity and mobilisation to mount a credible challenge, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court. International and regional rights groups, along with several Western governments, had agreed that the polls would not be credible.

With the opposition silenced ahead of the poll, Hun Sen's opponents had called for an election boycott.

The National Election Commission (NEC) said in a news conference that voter turnout was 80.49 percent.

In the previous general election in 2013 turnout was 69.61 percent.

"The total number of people who voted was 6.74 million or about 80.49 percent. This is the success of the election," Sik Bun Hok, chairman of the NEC, said in a televised news conference. 8.3 million people were registered to vote on
Sunday.

"This time is higher," he added. "Cambodia should be proud."

Yoeung Sotheara, an election analyst and legal expert who previously worked as a poll monitor in Cambodia, said Sunday's result was best compared with the result of the nationwide local government elections in 2017, where turnout was 90 per cent, or 7.1 million voters.

Electoral reforms in 2016 made it easier for people to register where they lived and cleaned out dead people and "ghost" names from the voter list, he said.

Analysis: Economy, stability key issues in Hun Sen’s favour

‘Is it election day?’

Scenes on the ground in the capital Phnom Penh painted a different picture than that presented by the government. At a polling station near the river, election workers outnumbered voters and a slow trickle of people arrived throughout the day.

Another polling station at a school was quiet with a handful of voters casting their ballots in the mid-afternoon heat.

One Dutch tourist visiting Cambodia on holiday said he did not realise it was election day.

"Is it election day? I didn't know. Seems very quiet, like a normal Sunday," said the tourist, who declined to be identified to protect his privacy.

‘A mockery of democracy’

Critics say the election is a backward step for democracy in Cambodia, marred by intimidation by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the dissolution last year of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the
jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said in a statement that the vote took place in a "highly repressive political environment" and said the election made “a mockery of democracy”.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected from Pol Pot's murderous regime, has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years and is the world's longest serving prime minister.

>> Read more: The ex-Khmer Rouge soldier keeping his grip on Cambodia

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, told Reuters in an e-mail that many voters grudgingly went to the polls out of fear. Authorities have warned that anyone boycotting the vote will be seen as a "traitor."

One voter at a polling station by the river at Preap Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh said not voting was "too much trouble".

"I did not want to vote but I did vote," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

CPP is banking on a high voter turn-out to bestow a veneer of legitimacy on the election.

The NEC's Sik Bun Hok said the high voter turnout on Sunday put to rest doubts about the election's legitimacy.

"This answers the international community's question about whether Cambodia loves democracy," he said, adding that all polling stations in the country "operated without any obstruction."

In a message on Facebook after polls closed Hun Sen thanked Cambodians for voting in "overwhelming numbers".

"You have truly chosen the path of democracy," said Hun Sen.

Nineteen political parties ran against Hun Sen's ruling CPP, but none are strongly critical of the government.

The opposition CNRP, appealing to younger voters and those seeking change, narrowly lost the last general election in 2013.

The 2018 election is the country's sixth since 1993 when it emerged from decades of war, including the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime which is blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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