Cambodia: Opposition makes gains after record turnout in local elections
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Cambodia: Opposition makes gains after record turnout in local elections

CAMBODIA’s opposition party has won a significant portion of the vote against the authoritarian ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, after record numbers of voters turned out for local elections on Sunday.

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 46 percent of the vote to the ruling Cambodian People Party’s (CPP) 51 percent, a massive increase from the last local council commune elections when the CPP won 97 percent of the vote against a divided opposition.

The country’s National Election Committee (NEC) announced more than 6.7 million Cambodians turned out to vote, exceeding voter turnout at the 2012 commune elections by over 1.7 people, reports Cambodia Daily.

With 85.7 percent of registered voters casting their ballots, this reflects a record election turnout for Cambodia.

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CNRP president Kem Sokha casts his vote during local elections in Kandal province, Cambodia, on June 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

SEE ALSO: Cambodian deputy PM threatens to ‘smash the teeth’ of opposition

“This is a huge success for the CNRP,” said opposition parliamentarian Yim Sovann. A senior spokesman for the CNRP Monovithya Kem said the election represented “huge gains” for the party.

The CNRP won decisively with 76 out of 109 communes in the province of Kampong Cham. The Phnom Penh Post said the election meant the party had turned “a solid support base” in the province into “an undeniable stronghold.”

Cambodia’s government has faced criticism for cracking down on political opposition, the media and rights advocates in the lead-up to these local elections and national elections next year, as the CPP tries to cling to power.

Hun Sen has been in power for three decades – making him one of the longest-serving world leaders on the planet. After Sunday’s poll, he praised the election as smooth and successful.

Government rhetoric in the lead-up to the local elections had spurred fears of intimidation, electoral fraud and violence. Authorities had banned certain rallies and arbitrarily rejected certain campaign materials.

An Amnesty International report released last week accused the government of manipulating the courts to silence dissent and political opposition.

Hun Sen warned of civil war if the CPP didn’t win and Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh threatened to “smash the teeth” of the opposition should they protest the result.

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Hun Sen looks at the ballot box after casting his vote during local elections in Kandal province, Cambodia, on June 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

SEE ALSO: Cambodia: Asean parliamentarians call for transparent, fair and peaceful election

On Sunday, Transparency International Cambodia said it “went smoothly with little to no violence or intimidation and with most polling officials following proper procedures.” The anti-corruption watchdog had more than 1,000 observers on the ground.

Nevertheless, the Phnom Penh Post reports large groups of military personnel were seen voting at polling stations outside of their area of residence. This practice, permitted by the NEC, reportedly allows the “ruling party to strategically register soldiers to sway the vote in contested communes.”

“Sunday’s local elections are critical for grassroots democracy and the vote is being seen by many as a kind of litmus test of the political environment ahead of national elections planned for 2018,” said the Malaysian MP Charles Santiago of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights last week.

While no violence was reported on Sunday, the opposition’s success means some are predicting greater intimidation in the lead-up to next year’s poll.

Hun Sen joined a party rally of 200,000 people last Friday, ending a longstanding tradition of avoiding direct campaigning. Coupled with openly hostile rhetoric, this suggests the government is increasingly concerned about losing power.

“This is the choice between peace and security for development, and chaotic destruction,” he declared.

One netizen has already created a Wikipedia page for the national election, set to be held on 22 July 2018.