Cambodian Ruling Party Heads to Poll Win
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians went to the polls Sunday in an election dominated by a tense border dispute with neighboring Thailand that has fueled national sentiment, strengthening longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Sen's reputation as a strongman who intimidates rivals has served him well, with voters rallying around the leader as Cambodian troops face off with Thai soldiers for a second week at a disputed 11th century Hindu temple on the border.
Dressed in gray safari shirt and pants, Hun Sen flashed a broad smile and displayed a black-inked forefinger to waiting cameras after casting his ballot Sunday in a provincial town outside the capital, Phnom Penh. He declined comment to reporters.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy called a midday news conference, claiming some 200,000 registered voters in the capital, where the opposition is strongest, were unable to cast ballots because their names had been left off voter lists.
The ruling party "is full of tricks. Scrap the election and do it again," he said. Allegations of vote fraud have plagued past Cambodian elections but never dented the ruling party's dominance.
Asia's longest-serving leader, the 57-year-old Hun Sen was forecast to win the vote even before the military standoff escalated earlier this month. But patriotic passions over Preah Vihear temple and Hun Sen's firm stance against Thailand have swayed many undecided voters in his favor, analysts say.
"Everybody now supports the government because this is a national issue," said Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor. "More people will vote for (Hun Sen) to give him more power to deal with Preah Vihear."
Chan Sim, a 72-year-old voter in the capital, cast his ballot for Hun Sen's ruling party "because of its good leadership and ability to keep unity."
A 24-year-old Buddhist monk, Chhuon Noeurn, said the standoff at Preah Vihear did not affect his choice for a leader, but added: "We Cambodians cannot afford to be divided on this issue."
More than 8 million of Cambodia's 14 million people were eligible to vote in Sunday's election. Buddhist monks and ordinary people, some holding toddlers with milk bottles, crowded polling stations when they opened at 8 p.m. EDT. Unofficial party results were expected a few hours after polling stations close at 4 a.m. EDT. Official figures were expected later in the week.
Eleven parties are vying for seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government to run the country for the next five years.
Hun Sen himself has voiced little doubt that his ruling Cambodian People's Party, which held 73 Assembly's seats during the past five-year-term, will return with an overwhelming majority.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia since 1985, when he became prime minister of a Vietnamese-installed communist government after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Internationally, he has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But Hun Sen argues his tenure ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge's genocidal reign from 1975-1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people before being toppled by the invading Vietnamese army.
A former Khmer Rouge soldier himself, Hun Sen embraced free-market policies that have made Cambodia's economy one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 percent in each of the past three years.
"The economic growth helps. And in a time of crisis, people feel they have to be united behind the power that controls the army," said Benny Widyono, an independent observer and former United Nations official during Cambodia's U.N.-brokered peace process in the early 1990s.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which held 24 seats in the lower house of parliament, campaigned for greater attention to human rights, the country's poor and an end to alleged corruption.
But standard election issues have been upstaged by the military standoff with Thailand, a controversy revolving around 1.8 square miles of land that has been in dispute since French colonialists withdrew from Cambodia in the 1950s.
The International Court of Justice awarded the temple site to Cambodia in 1962, but anger flared in Thailand last month after Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej backed Cambodia's successful bid for the temple to be listed as a U.N. World Heritage Site.
Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after Thai anti-government demonstrators assembled near the temple. Cambodia responded by sending its own troops to the border.
The two countries plan to resume negotiations on the border row Monday.