The ruling party of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has claimed victory in the country’s national elections but appears to have lost more than 20 seats.
And that comes despite the opposition leader being barred from running.
It’s the fifth election since a United Nations intervention in 1993 that effectively ended the country’s civil war and imposed democracy.
But the latest poll, like those that have gone before it, has been marred by allegations of widespread irregularities.
Kerri Worthington has the story.
Although official results are yet to be announced, the Prime Minister’s Cambodian People’s Party says it expects to take 68 out of the 123 seats in the country’s lower house.
The Hun Sen-led CPP had 90 seats in the previous parliament, so, if confirmed, the result would mark the loss of more than 20 seats.
The opposition’s resurgence has taken Cambodia analysts by surprise because the leader of the main opposition party returned from exile little more than a week before the polls.
The return of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s Sam Rainsy is thought to have boosted his party’s vote, even though he was not allowed to be a candidate.
South-east Asia expert Milton Osborne, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute, says he expected some loss of CPP seats but losing 20 to the main opposition is significant.
“I don’t think that Hun Sen is suddenly going to change his policies or that he will do as some people have been suggesting in Cambodia, to try and form a coalition with the opposition parties. My take, certainly, on things as they stand at the moment is that the CPP will be determined to continue holding power. On the votes as they stand at the moment, he certainly is entitled to hold power.”
Hun Sen has ruled since 1985, when he defected from the communist Khmer Rouge and was installed in power by the Vietnamese.
He oversaw Cambodia’s transformation from a nation devastated by its so-called Killing Fields genocidal era in the late 1970s to become a growing economy.
But Youhorn Chea, of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, says, despite the appearance of a vibrant economy, Cambodia has a massive disparity in wealth.
“Because I still have a distant relative who lives in Cambodia as well, (I know) some (people) just work to get less than one dollar per day and they still live in very, very poor conditions. So the government should do something.”
Youhorn Chea says the youth of Cambodia want change and the election results have shown they are beginning to get their way.
Milton Osborne backs that view.
He says young, urban Cambodians voted overwhelmingly for the opposition and that has considerable implications for the next elections.
But Dr Osborne cautions it is too soon to dismiss Hun Sen’s future as a force in Cambodian politics.
“I think he has a very determined intention of staying in power. And while there are many things that can be levelled against Hun Sen and his government by way of criticism, the fact that this is so should not blind us to the fact that he is a very clever politician and has some very considerably able people working with him.”
The buoyant Cambodia National Rescue Party says it rejects the poll results, decrying what it describes as the kingdom’s worst-ever poll irregularities.
It has called for setting up an investigation committee with representatives from the political parties, the United Nations, the election authority and non-governmental organisations.
Sam Rainsy, the party’s leader, says he wants the election result to truly reflect the will of the people.
“What we are interested in is to render justice to the Cambodian people, to ensure that the will of the Cambodian people will not be distorted or reversed as before.”
The United States has voiced concern about possible irregularities in the weekend elections and has called for a credible investigation.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the US government urges all parties and their supporters to continue acting in an orderly and peaceful manner.
“We are concerned by numerous reported irregularities in the electoral process. We have consistently called on the Royal Government of Cambodia to address systemic flaws, such as problems in the voter registry and unequal access to the media. We call for a transparent and full investigation of all credible reports of irregularities.”
There have been reports of violence at polling stations, supposedly indelible ink coming off people’s fingers and electoral-roll irregularities.
But the Lowy Institute’s Milton Osborne says Asian election monitors on the ground have reported the elections were free and fair.
“They’re part of an Asian democratic group from (South) Korea, from Malaysia, from Laos — I think there were others as well — and they have reported that the election was free and fair. Now, given Cambodia’s tortured history, it’s entirely possible that there have been irregularities, and there have also been claims that various people were excluded from the voting lists. I think these are complaints which will go on for some time. At least at the moment, I don’t think they’re going to alter the result or lead to any change in the pattern that has emerged.”
Youhorn Chea, of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, suggests Cambodia’s democracy needs to reflect the wishes of a wider range of its citizens but also the diaspora.
He says many in the local Cambodian community would have liked to vote in the elections because they maintain a key interest in the country.
He says he would like to see changes in the future.
“Perhaps in the constitution, we need to have that the prime minister should be just two terms. Two terms is 10 years already. Like, in the USA, it’s much, much better. Otherwise, just the one person sits in the government for over 20 years. It’s too much.” (laughs)