Security was tightened in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, on Sunday after polling ended in a general election in which the opposition said it had made gains despite what it called vote-rigging by Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 28 years.
Eng Chhay Eang, a candidate of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said that based on vote counts from some polling stations provided by party monitors, the CNRP was positive of gaining more seats. “At places where we were defeated last time, we are now taking the lead,” he said.
Backed by a compliant media and with superior resources, the CPP is confident of victory, but analysts believe the recently united opposition may dent its majority. The CPP had 90 of the 123 seats in the outgoing parliament and the parties that united to form the CNRP had 29.
Voting, like the campaign itself, was generally peaceful although scuffles were reported in various places, mostly involving people complaining about irregularities. Angry voters set fire to a car outside one polling station in the capital and some smashed up police cars, a Reuters photographer said.
The CNRP has alleged electoral lists were manipulated to give the CPP more votes and also complained about the disruption of meetings plus campaigning by the security forces for Hun Sen.
“The partisanship of the military and police has created an intimidating atmosphere for voters in many parts of the country,” US-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of the poll.
More than 9.6 million people were eligible to vote. Polling stations closed at 3pm and the National Election Committee could publish some provisional results on Sunday evening. Full results could take weeks.
The CNRP, formed by the merger of two main opposition parties, has been buoyed by the return home of a popular leader, former finance minister Sam Rainsy, after a royal pardon.
He had faced a jail sentence handed down in 2010 for spreading disinformation and falsifying maps to contest a new border agreed with Vietnam, charges he called politically motivated.
He returned too late to register to run in the election, or even to vote, and the electoral authorities rejected his late request to do so. But he has attracted large crowds to rallies and may appeal to younger voters with no memory of the turmoil before the authoritarian Hun Sen helped restore stability.
At one polling station set up at a pagoda in Phnom Penh, 29-year-old Khat Sreynit said she wanted a better country and jobs for university graduates. “And also that people have a living wage,” she said, before rushing into the crowd to get a glimpse of Sam Rainsy, who had turned up there.
A 70-year-old voter clutching an ID card declined to give her name but said: “This election is important for the country. I have always voted before, since 1993, I voted for living conditions and the country.” She paid little attention to Sam Rainsy’s arrival.
The United Nations organised an election in 1993 that put Cambodia on a rocky path towards stability after decades of turmoil, including the 1975-79 “Killing Fields” rule of the communist Khmer Rouge.
Under Hun Sen, a former junior commander in the Khmer Rouge who broke away during their rule, Cambodia has been transformed into one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies, helped by garment exports plus aid money and investment from China.
But economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in social tension over poor factory conditions and rural land rights in a country of 14 million where a third of the people live on less than 65 US cents a day.
Some analysts believe the opposition has its best chance in years of denting the CPP majority.
“The opposition will gain more seats, judging by all the support we’ve seen,” said independent analyst Chea Vannath.
“But regardless of how many more seats the parties get, they should be united for the country rather than confronting each other,” she added, advocating a government of national unity.