Cambodia’s ruling party declared on Sunday it was on course for a “landslide” victory in an election where all meaningful opposition to long-time ruler Hun Sen was eliminated before polling day.
The 70-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre has ruled since 1985 and faced no real contest in the vote, with opposition parties banned, challengers forced to flee and freedom of expression stifled.
His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is expected to retain all 125 seats in the lower house, prolonging his grip on power and paving the way for him to hand the reins to his son in a dynastic succession some critics have compared to North Korean politics.
The only serious opposition party was disqualified on a technicality in the run-up to the polls and it will be a surprise if any of the 17 other small, poorly funded parties win seats.
“We are winning a landslide,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told AFP around two hours after polls closed, with counting underway.
Initial results are expected within hours, with the final tally expected in the coming weeks.
More than 9.7 million people were registered to vote in Cambodia’s seventh election since the United Nations first sponsored polls in 1993 after years of conflict, including the era of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, devastated the country.
Whatever hopes the international community might have had for a vibrant, multi-party democracy in Cambodia over the past 30 years have been flattened by the juggernaut of Hun Sen’s rule.
Voter turnout recorded at around 6:00 pm (1100 GMT) was 84 percent and Hun Sen said this showed support for opposition groups had collapsed.
“The Cambodian people won’t let the cheating groups destroy the country,” he wrote on his official Telegram channel.
With victory for Hun Sen all but assured, eyes will turn to Hun Manet, his son and anointed successor, after the veteran PM said he could hand over power within a few weeks.
“We have exercised our civil right and responsibility and right… of citizens to vote to choose the party we love to lead the country,” the 45-year-old scion told reporters after casting his ballot.
Many wonder whether Hun Manet, educated in the United States and Britain, might bring change to the country — though Hun Sen has made it clear that he intends to keep pulling strings even after his son takes over.
Asked by AFP what he planned to do for Cambodia when he became prime minister, Hun Manet replied: “I have no comment on that.”
Rights groups have condemned the election, with a 17-strong coalition saying on the eve of polling that the ballot was of “profound concern”.
The only real challenge to the CPP had come from the Candlelight Party but Cambodia’s electoral body refused to register it in May, rendering it ineligible to compete.
With no meaningful opposition in the race, Hun Sen’s arch-foe Sam Rainsy said a key measure will be the number of voided ballot papers.
“Of course the ruling party will get (nearly) 100 percent of the ‘valid’ ballots,” Sam Rainsy, an opposition figurehead exiled in France, told AFP by email.
“The surprise of the day will be the number and the percentage of ‘spoiled’ ballots.”
There was despondency among some people voting under a heavy police presence in Phnom Penh.
“I don’t feel excited or anything because there are no opposition parties left,” Oum Sokum, 51, told AFP.
But in a country that was torn apart by genocide and war within living memory, others said they were happy to vote for stability.
“I want to vote for the person who can help the country become more developed. I want to live in peace and have harmony,” Chea Phearak, 36, told AFP.
Freedom of speech had been heavily stifled ahead of the election, with one of the few remaining independent news outlets shut down earlier this year.
And Hun Sen ordered election laws changed last month, banning anyone who fails to vote in the poll from ever running for office — a move that will affect exiled rivals such as Sam Rainsy.