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Cambodian PM coasts to another victory after opposition party silenced

Hun Sen’s 33 years in power make him among the world’s longest-serving national leaders.

Cambodia’s ruling party has won the country’s general election, a widely expected outcome in a poll slammed by rights groups as illegitimate and which ensures another five-year term for prime minister Hun Sen.

Although 20 parties contested the election, the only one with the popularity and organisation to mount a real challenge, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court in a ruling generally seen as political in nature.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith confirmed the Cambodian People’s Party had topped the polls.

He did not say how many of the 125 seats in the National Assembly the CPP had captured, but preliminary totals broadcast on state television showed the party had won at least 70% of the vote in each of the country’s 25 provinces.

Under the election’s system of proportional representation, the party would likely grab more than 100 seats.

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A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Kandal province, south-east of the capital Phnom Penh (Heng Sinith/AP)

Local and foreign rights groups, along with several Western governments, had agreed that the election would not be credible.

Charging that the polls were neither free nor fair, the disbanded CNRP’s former leaders had urged people not to vote in what was dubbed a “Clean Finger” campaign because those who did cast ballots had to dip a finger in indelible ink to thwart multiple voting.

According to detailed totals released by the state National Election Committee, more than 6.8 million registered voters, or 82.2%, cast ballots.

The figure, if correct, would suggest the promotion by opposition forces of a poll boycott was ineffective. In the last general election in 2013, voter turnout was 6.6 million, or 68.5% of 9.7 million registered voters.

Hun Sen said on his Facebook page before the results were announced that he welcomed the big turnout, and congratulated his countrymen for exercising their right to vote.

Opposition forces, who had already judged the polls not to be free or fair because of the exclusion of the only credible challenger, can point to two reasons for the alleged failure of the boycott movement.

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Locals line up to vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh (Heng Sinith/AP)

In rural areas where the majority live, the failure to vote – signified by having no fingers dipped in indelible ink – made voters subject to retaliation by local officials who carry out civic functions, such as land registration. There had been reports during the campaign of threats against anyone who planned to boycott the vote.

Voters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and an opposition stronghold, were less susceptible to such threats because of their higher visibility and safety in numbers. However, according to the election committee, even there the turnout was about 80%.

Doubts are also likely to be raised about the actual turnout figures because several established poll-watching groups – as well as contingents from the United States and the European Union – declined to take part because they felt the polls were not legitimate. One of the bigger Cambodian groups participating in poll-watching was led by one of Hun Sen’s sons.

Following the election, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had earlier urged Cambodians not to vote, called for peaceful protests, calling it “a sham election with a foregone conclusion”.

Speaking in Paris, where he lives, he said it “is a meaningless victory because (Hun Sen) won without any real challenger… prior to the election he dissolved the only credible opposition party”.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was alarmed by the results of the 2013 election, when the race was close enough for the opposition to claim that it would have won had it not been for manipulation of the voter registration process.

Along with fracturing the political opposition – including pressuring Rainsy into exile and jailing his successor Kem Sokha – Hun Sen’s government also silenced critical voices in the media.

Over the past year, about 30 radio stations shut down, and two English-language newspapers that provided serious reporting were gutted, one forced to close and the other put under ownership friendly to the government.

Just ahead of the polls, the government ordered the temporary blocking of 17 websites, citing regulations prohibiting media from disseminating information that might affect security. The blocked websites included those of the US government-funded Voice of America as well as local media.

Hun Sen, whose 33 years in power make him among the world’s longest-serving national leaders, promised peace and prosperity at a rally on the last day of campaigning on Friday, but attacked the opposition’s boycott call and called those who heed it “destroyers of democracy.”

The 65-year-old has said he intends to stay in power for at least two more five-year terms.

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