A Cambodian Buddhist monk casts his ballot at a polling station in Phnom Penh June 4. Millions of Cambodians voted in the local polls, testing the political temperature of a country rife with tension between its strongman premier and an embattled opposition determined to end his three-decade rule. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) scored a tight victory at Sunday’s commune elections, according to preliminary results, with the ballot passing-off peacefully after a campaign tarnished by threats of war and the jailing of opposition supporters.
Early counting resulted in the CPP winning 51 percent of the popular vote with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) falling short of its expectations, picking-up 46 percent and the minor parties three percent.
The CNRP won 30 percent of the overall vote five years ago and had expected to lift this to 60 percent, however, a strong showing by the ruling party, particularly in its rural heartland, restricted the opposition's anticipated gains with its support emerging from the capital and provincial cities.
There are about 14,100 villages divided into 1,646 communes and more than 12,000 local council positions were contested. The CPP also won control of 70 percent of individual communes in a poll described by the Prime Minister as "transparent, free and fair."
Voter turnout was significantly high at 85 percent.
Amid a crackdown on dissent Hun Sen had earlier warned Cambodia would return to war had his CPP, in power since the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, lost at this election or at the all important national poll due in July next year.
"The CPP must win elections at all stages," he recently told an assembly of Cambodian Christians, "… to ensure the lives of millions of people, we are willing to eliminate 100 or 200 people."
Government relations with the major religions — Buddhism, Christianity and Islam — are usually good but can be strained around elections. Four monks were recently detained, their phones seized and photos deleted by police after urging voters at a CNRP rally not to support political parties that bully voters.
In the stunned audience of 4,000 was Thai Pahna, a spokesman for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Phnom Penh, who voted in northwest Kampong Thom province. He said voting went smoothly on the day with police and election monitors ensuring security.
"There were some people who had trouble voting because they could not get a bus home or could not leave work or lacked the right documents," he said. "But I think the overall process of the election went smoothly. I didn't see any problems."
This commune election was widely seen as a litmus test for the CPP which did win government in 2013 but suffered a sharp reduction in the number of seats it holds in the 123-seat national assembly, after the youth vote sided with the opposition.
Analysts said that had caused a good deal of angst within CPP ranks. Defamation laws were subsequently criminalized and opposition supporters jailed. This also prompted opposition leader Sam Rainsy to resign with his deputy Kem Sokha taking-up the CNRP reigns.
The CNRP campaigned on a range of local and national issues including human rights, land rights and a dramatic increase in promised budgets to US$500,000 a year for each commune.
"A major problem for the CNRP was its cash promise for communes. There were too many ambiguities and no one believes they can pay that kind of money because they do not control the government at a national level," one analyst, who declined to be named, said.
The violence that has too often afflicted past Cambodian elections was absent at this poll.
More than 100,000 people from both political parties rallied through the streets of Phnom Penh on the last day of the campaign in an atmosphere described by most as convivial, although one Australian cameraman, James Ricketson, was arrested after reportedly flying a drone without permission.