Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, has won a landslide election victory, a result that was seen as a foregone conclusion after a months-long brutal crackdown destroyed all opposition.
The election, widely condemned as a sham by human rights groups and political observers, saw Hun Sen, who has by now ruled Cambodia for 33 years, re-elected with an estimated 80 per cent of the vote, with his CPP party taking at least 100 of 125 parliamentary seats.
The official results will not be announced until mid-August, but CPP spokesman Sok Eysan confirmed them. He said: "The CPP won 80 per cent of all the votes and we estimate we will win not less than 100 seats."
Defying international consensus, Hun Sen maintained he had won in a free and fair election. “You have truly chosen the path of democracy,” he said in a message to Cambodians after the polls closed on Sunday.
It was a preordained result, which surprised nobody, and firmly establishes Cambodia as a de facto one-party state.
Over the past year, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge general, systematically destroyed all forms of political opposition, first imprisoning Kem Sokha, the co-leader of the opposition political party, the CNRP, last October on charges of treason. Not long afterwards, the courts, which are widely known to be under the control of Hun Sen, ordered the CNRP to be dissolved entirely, forcing hundreds of its members into exile.
During past months, Hun Sen has also overseen the forced closure of all independent media in Cambodia, as well as locking up journalists on trumped up charges, imprisoning those working for civil society groups and banishing many NGOs from the country.
Cambodia held its first free election in 1993 and has held elections regularly since, giving Hun Sen’s regime some sheen of democratic legitimacy. However, his crackdown on the opposition in this election was unprecedented in its breadth and the 19 small parties left in the running were either considered to be completely unviable or puppets for Hun Sen.
Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights said the elections were taking place in a "highly repressive political environment".
A push for a voter boycott – described as the “clean finger movement” referring to the ink stain branded on fingers when people have voted – had led many to hope Hun Sen’s inevitable triumph would be undermined by a low voter turnout.
Tactics of intimidation
However, Hun Sen used his final pre-election speech on Friday to issue a warning. “Those who do not go to vote, and who are incited by the national traitors, are the ones who destroy democracy,” he said.
There were also multiple reports of tactics of intimidation being used by the CPP, with people in factories threatened with losing their jobs and threats that people would have water and electricity cut off, or even be evicted from their homes by local authorities, if they did not vote.
It was ultimately effective, with voter turnout reported by the government to be 82.71 per cent, far higher than in the 2013 election. However, there was an unusually high number of spoiled ballots reported in some areas such as Phnom Penh, where 17 per cent of the votes were invalid.
The president of the National Election Committee, Sik Bunhok, said there was "no case of voter intimidation" and insisted people had participated happily.
“Cambodia should be proud,” he said, adding: “This answers the international community’s question about whether Cambodia loves democracy.”
On Wednesday, 4,625 armed police and military personnel had taken to the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, in a military exercise that was a “rehearsal” for the election and was widely seen as a warning for anyone contemplating protests.
It proved an effective strategy: unlike in the 2013 elections that were the closest that Hun Sen came to losing – widely seen as a the catalyst for the crackdown on opposition – the streets were silent, reflecting the lack of political unrest.
In the 48 hours prior to the election, 17 major news websites, including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Voice of Democracy, and the Phnom Penh Post, were blocked by the government's information ministry in a bid to prevent voters seeing material deemed provocative.
Those invited to observe the election did also not offer up much hope for democratic accountability or neutrality. Of the 538 foreign observers and thousands of domestic monitors, many had connections to the ruling party or were from authoritarian regimes such as China.
Also among the invited British observers was Richard Wood, who ran as a Ukip candidate in the 2015 UK election. "We're here for the people, to do this for the people," said Mr Wood. – Guardian/Reuters