The ruling party of strongman Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed victory in yesterday’s elections, which were marred by allegations of widespread irregularities, but it faced rare competition from a resurgent opposition.
Although official results had yet to be announced, the prime minister’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said it expected to win 68 out of the 123 seats in the lower house.
“We can say we’ve won this election,” CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
The CPP had 90 seats in the previous parliament, so if confirmed the result would mark the loss of more than 20 seats.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter, has been in power for 28 years.
The opposition decried what it described as the kingdom’s worst-ever poll irregularities, including missing voter names and thousands of people who turned up to find someone else had used their ballot.
“The situation is more serious than at any previous election,” Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) spokesman Yim Sovann said.
The party caused brief confusion after claiming it had won the polls, but it quickly retracted the statement. It had no immediate response to the ruling party’s declaration.
Protests broke out at one polling station in the capital, Phnom Penh, where a crowd destroyed two police cars, military police spokesman Kheng Tito said, as anger erupted over names missing from the voter list.
Rights groups also expressed concern that the ink used to mark voters could be easily washed off.
“It is very difficult to proclaim this a free and fair election,” said Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.
“I think the level playing field in the process didn’t really exist. There has not been equal access to the media and the opposition leader was not allowed to run as a candidate,” Kol Preap said.
The National Election Committee denied irregularities.
Even before polls opened, the opposition had said a Hun Sen win would be “worthless” without the participation of its leader Sam Rainsy.
The former banker returned to Cambodia on July 19 from self-imposed exile after receiving a surprise royal pardon for criminal convictions that he contends were politically motivated.
However, he was barred from running as a candidate since the authorities said it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.
Rainsy toured polling stations in Phnom Penh yesterday to “collect more evidence” of vote irregularities.
He said that if indications pointed to a “plot to rig the election,” then “definitely we will protest.”
Local poll monitor the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia alleged that up to 1.25 million people who were eligible to cast ballots were not on voter lists.