Cambodians vote in election with main opposition silenced

A man takes a photo of a ballot showing candidates in Cambodia's general election, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, top, before voting begins at a polling station in Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — With the main opposition silenced, Cambodians voted in an election Sunday virtually certain to return to office Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than three decades.
Although 20 parties contested the polls, the only one with the popularity and organization to mount a credible challenge, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court.
Charging that the polls were neither free nor fair, the 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, a practice meant to thwart multiple voting.
Local and foreign rights groups, along with several Western governments, had agreed that the polls would not be credible.
According to figures released by National Election Committee chairman Sik Bun Hok about two hours after the polls closed, some 6.7 million people turned out to vote, or roughly 80 percent of the 8.3 million registered voters.
The figure, if correct, would suggest that 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 percent of 9.7 million registered voters.
Preliminary election results are expected later Sunday night.
Hun Sen said on his Facebook page 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 and fair because of the exclusion of the only credible challenger, can point to two reasons for the alleged failure of the boycott movement.
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.
Doubts are also likely to be raised about the actual turnout figures, because several established poll-watching groups — as well as national 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.
After the polls closed, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had earlier urged Cambodians not to vote, slammed the election.
“For the Cambodian people, unable to make a real choice because of the absence of the CNRP, the result of this false election conducted in a climate of fear is a betrayal of the popular will,” Sam Rainsy posted on his Facebook page.
Hun Sen’s ruling 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 Sam 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 U.S. 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.” Hun Sen and his wife cast their ballots south of the capital shortly after polling stations opened on Sunday.
Hun Sen, 65, has said he intends to stay in power for at least two more five-year terms.
He was a member of the radical communist Khmer Rouge during its successful five-year war to topple a pro-American government, then defected to Vietnam during Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s 1975-79 genocidal regime that left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead. He became prime minister in 1985 in a Vietnamese-backed single-party communist government and led Cambodia through a civil war against the Khmer Rouge, which eased off with the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that also installed a democratic political framework.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.