Cambodia's opposition condemns election 'climate of fear' as strongman Hun Sen declares victory

Prime Minister Hun Sen will maintain his decades-long grip on power after an election dubbed a "sham." The main opposition was banned from the election, all but ensuring a large victory for the incumbent.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party claimed a landslide victory in Sunday's election that was widely dismissed by the main opposition and western observers as being neither free nor fair.

"Compatriots have chosen the democratic path and used your rights," the 65-year-old Hu Sen said on Facebook on Sunday, despite the CPP being the sole possible winner, after the only credible political opposition — the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — was banned from taking part.

A spokesman for Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) said on Monday that he expected that the party would take all 125 seats in the country's parliament. 

Ahead of the election, the government proceeded to crack down on dissent, pressured civic organizations and the independent media.

Polls closed at 3 p.m. local time. About two hours later the National Election Commission (NEC) announced voter turnout out at more than 80 percent, a marked increase from the 2013 vote when turnout was just below 70 percent.

"The total number of people who voted was 6.74 million or about 80.49 percent. This is the success of the election," said Sik Bun Hok, chairman of the NEC, during a televised news conference.

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

There are, however, unconfirmed reports of spoiled ballots by people who feared government retribution for not voting.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy dismissed the emerging results on his Facebook page.

"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," he posted.

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The CNRP had called on Cambodians to boycott the "sham election that has no support and is not recognized by the international community."

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About 20 parties still contested the election but none of them had the public support or the capacity to launch a campaign that could challenge the ruling CPP.

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Hun Sen was given a scare in the 2013 election when the CNRP did well enough to credibly claim it would have won had the government not manipulated the voter registration process.

"This Cambodian election is not going to be genuine and it's not going to be free or fair," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "The problem is the opposition party — the CNRP — which won 44 percent in the local elections in 2017 has been barred. You're talking about an election without an opposition."

The CNRP was dissolved last year by a Supreme Court ruling. In addition to dismantling the opposition, the government has systematically sought to silence independent media voices. It temporarily blocked 17 websites, including local media pages.

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Hun Sen said he plans to stay in power for at least another decade — two five-year terms. He has already led the country for 33 years, making him the world's longest-serving national leader currently in power.

On Saturday he met with foreign election observers from Russia, China and Indonesia, among other countries. But the US, European Union and Japan did not send observers, saying the election already lacked credibility.

Last week the US Congress passed the Cambodia Democracy Act which seeks "to promote free and fair elections, political freedoms and human rights in Cambodia and impose sanctions on Hun Sen's inner circle."

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mm, bik/aw (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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