Cambodia’s flawed elections are set to hand the ruling party of strongman Hun Sen all 125 parliamentary seats, a spokesman told AFP Monday, an outcome that would turn the country into a one-party state after a vote devoid of an opposition.
Sunday’s ballot has prolonged Hun Sen’s 33-year rule, but observers say questions of legitimacy may haunt the wily political survivor as frustration sets in over lack of change.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “will take all seats across the country,” spokesman Sok Eysan told AFP at party headquarters, hailing “a landslide victory”.
In response the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s only real opposition who were disbanded before the poll, issued a statement lamenting “the death of democracy” and a “new, dark day” in Cambodian history.
Some 8.3 million people registered to cast their ballots in the vote — Cambodia’s sixth general election since United Nations-sponsored polls were held in 1993 after decades of conflict.
Sok Eysan said the predicted clean sweep was based on initial results. Final figures are due August 15.
Asked about the country turning into a one-party state, the CPP spokesman said it was “the decision of the people,” adding that Cambodia’s constitution allows for a multi-party system.
But the ballot lacked any serious challengers after Hun Sen cracked down on the opposition last year, leading to the arrest one of its leaders and then the dissolution of the party by the Supreme Court.
Opposition figures had urged a boycott of the poll.
But election authorities warned they would take action against those pressing for a “clean-finger” campaign and pointed to an 82 percent turnout as evidence that the boycott call had failed.
Experts say high turnouts are common in authoritarian states where voter intimidation is more widespread.
Yet in a sign of a kickback from unhappy voters, around 600,000 ballots — around 10 percent of the total — were spoiled, according to a preliminary count by the National Election Commission.
‘Neither free, nor fair’
Hun Sen came to power in 1985 in a country still plagued by civil war and his CPP has won every election since 1998.
But wearied by a culture of impunity and corruption more than 44 percent of voters backed the opposition CNRP in 2013 polls, creating the most serious challenge to Hun Sen in years.
This time the Cambodian leader ruthlessly moved against his critics in the election run-up, corralling civil society, independent media and political opponents.
That led many western governments to pull their support from the vote.
It was “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people,” the White House said in a statement.
The US would consider a “significant expansion” of visa restrictions introduced last year against some senior Cambodian officials, it warned.
The European Union said the outcome of the vote “lacks credibility” and does not reflect the will of the people.
In contrast China, a key Cambodia ally which has provided cash and soft loans to Hun Sen’s government without raising questions over human rights and democracy, offered its “sincere congratulations” on the poll, according to foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
‘It’s him again’
The 65-year-old Hun Sen is also seen as a stabilising force in the eyes of many in a kingdom with a bloody and bitter recent history that spans civil war, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and occupation by Vietnam.
Hun Sen has cultivated his support base through rural and urban infrastructure and investment schemes that have added malls and condos to the skyline of the once sleepy capital Phnom Penh.
The premier also adroitly turned to Cambodia’s garment sector, which employs about 750,00 people, showering cash gifts on workers in the months ahead of polls.
“I am happy that the Cambodian People’s Party won overwhelmingly, more than previous mandates,” said supporter Sang Kimson, 38, the morning after the election.
But many other Cambodians are despondent at the idea of yet another term for Hun Sen, who is among the world’s longest-serving leaders.
“It is him again,” shrugged one man sitting outside a coffee shop who asked not to be named and who said he felt “hopeless” watching the results come in.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, predicted simmering discontent.
“I think what we will see here in Cambodia is continued passive resistance and anger by the Cambodian people, they weren’t given the opportunity to vote for the people they wanted,” he said.
Hun Sen has held onto power through political and family alliances in the police, military and media.
He was installed as prime minister during the Vietnamese occupation of the 1980s after defecting from the Khmer Rouge, which killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population from 1975 to 1979.