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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ruling Party Claims Victory in Cambodia Polls

Ruling Party Claims Victory in Cambodia Polls

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party on Sunday claimed victory in polls overshadowed by a military standoff with Thailand, setting the stage for him to extend his 23-year grip on power.

"We won the election," party spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP, citing tallies by their supporters. "We are leading in most of the provinces."

He added that the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was not yet sure of its margin of victory, as ballots were still being counted.

The initial vote count showed the CPP was leading with more than two-thirds of the vote in three provinces, election officials said on national television. Final official results were not expected until next month.

Hun Sen had been widely tipped to win due to a booming economy that has helped improve the quality of life in one of the world's poorest nations, and due to nationalist sentiment sparked by the border feud with Thailand, analysts said.

Khieu Kanharith had earlier predicted the party would win 80 of the 123 seats in parliament, just shy of a two-thirds majority, as the party siphoned away votes from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and royalist Funcinpec.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy called for a re-vote in Phnom Penh, alleging 200,000 people there could not vote Sunday after their names were lost from registration lists.

"Neither party won more than two-thirds of the seats," he told reporters, estimating that no party had received more than 70 seats, according to a tally by his supporters.

Election monitors, however, dismissed his claim of vote-rigging and said voting had proceeded smoothly overall.

Voters in the capital started lining up at dawn to cast ballots, with many saying their overriding concern was the territorial dispute with Thailand, centred on the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

"I will vote for those who can solve the issue of Preah Vihear temple immediately after they take power," said 56-year-old businessman Lam Chanvanda, as he stood in a long queue of voters.

"Before I was never interested in the border, but now it is in my heart."

Thousands of soldiers from both sides are facing off near the 11th-century Khmer temple. Foreign ministers from the two nations are set to meet Monday in hopes of resolving the deal.

Analysts had long predicted Hun Sen's victory because of Cambodia's strong economy, which has helped provide new roads, bridges and other improved infrastructure.

"This (victory) is the result of economic development, which has been spectacular, as well as strong campaigning," said Benny Widyono, a former UN envoy to Cambodia.

About 17,000 domestic and international observers monitored the voting at more than 15,000 polling stations. More than eight million people were registered to vote.

US-based Human Rights Watch has complained that the ruling party's near monopoly on broadcast media has undermined the opposition's efforts to woo voters, especially in rural parts of the country.

One radio station was shut down late Saturday after it broadcast a reading from a book by Sam Rainsy, violating rules against campaigning on the day before the vote, said Khieu Kanharith, who is also the government spokesman.

Hun Sen has a reputation for trampling on human rights to secure power. The former Khmer Rouge guerrilla became prime minister in 1985, and has steadily and ruthlessly cemented his grip on power, resorting to a coup in 1997.

In the current campaign, Hun Sen has been aided by his opponents' mistakes. His current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec party, has imploded under internal corruption scandals.

The Sam Rainsy Party was expected to maintain its strength in the capital but has made few inroads into rural Cambodia, where most voters live.

Although the campaign has been less violent than past elections, Human Rights Watch warned that a history of violence remains a source of intimidation against the opposition.

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