Cambodian election critics lament 'death of democracy' after ruling party wins again

Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party said on Monday it had won all 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs in a general election that, a day earlier, critics said was neither free nor fair.

Ruling party of Hun Sen, in power since the mid-1980s, has banned opposition and jailed critics

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shows off his inked finger after voting at a polling station in Takhmua, Kandal province, southeast of Phnom Penh on Sunday. Hun Sen has effectively turned the country's political system into a one-party state. (Heng Sinith/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) said on Monday it had won all 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs in a general election that, a day earlier, critics said was neither free nor fair.

Cambodia woke to another chapter of rule by strongman Hun Sen a day after an election that was heavily criticized by rights groups, the United States and other Western countries.

"The CPP won 77.5 per cent of the votes and won all the parliamentary seats," CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Reuters by telephone. "The other parties won no seats."

The White House said it would consider steps, including an expansion of visa restrictions placed on some Cambodian government members, in response to "flawed elections" in which there was no significant challenger to Hun Sen.

Critics say the election was a backward step for democracy in Cambodia following the dissolution last year of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges.

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile, said the election was a "hollow" victory for Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 33 years.

The U.S. has imposed visa curbs on some Cambodian government members over a crackdown on critics and levied sanctions in June on a high-ranking official close to Hun Sen. The European Union has threatened Cambodia with economic sanctions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Sunday's vote "failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people."

"The flawed elections, which excluded the country's principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia's constitution," Sanders said. The election campaign was marred by threats from national and local leaders, she said.

"The United States will consider additional steps to respond to the elections and other recent setbacks to democracy and human rights in Cambodia, including a significant expansion of the visa restrictions announced on December 6, 2017," Sanders said.

Deputy Director for Foreign Affairs of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Monovithya Kem, right, speaks during a press conference as Vice-President of CNRP, Mu Sochua from Jakarta, Indonesia. Several opposition figures fled Cambodia in recent years due to persecution. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the White House statement was an attempt to intimidate Cambodia.

"This is against the Cambodians who went to vote to decide their own fate," Phay Siphan told Reuters.

Cambodia patron China unbothered

Even as the West criticized the process, Hun Sen still has one important ally, China, which offered warm congratulations for a smooth election.

China has poured billions of dollars in development assistance and loans into Cambodia through bilateral frameworks and its Belt and Road initiative.

"I believe that the Cambodian parliament election is an internal matter for Cambodia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Monday. "We hope that the international community can provide constructive help for Cambodia to remain stable and achieve development."

CNRP Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs Monovithya Kem told a news conference in Jakarta on Monday the party welcomed the White House statement and hoped others would follow suit.

The CNRP also called on the international community to reject the result of the election.

"29 July 2018 marked the death of democracy in Cambodia, a dark new day in recent history," said CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua. "The result announced by the CPP and the National Election Committee must be fully rejected by the international community."

Newspaper headlines in Cambodia on Monday greeted Hun Sen's victory.

"CPP Dominates Election: Unofficial results show ruling party will increase its majority in the National Assembly," said the pro-government Khmer Times newspaper.

Some independent media were targeted by Hun Sen and his allies in a pre-election crackdown.

More than 82 per cent of those registered to vote cast a ballot, according to the National Election Committee. Turnout was 90 per cent in the 2017 local election and 69.61 per cent in the previous general election in 2013.

Polling stations visited by Reuters in the capital, Phnom Penh, were quiet on Sunday and some voters said they cast a ballot because not doing so would land them in trouble.

The CNRP had called on voters to boycott the election, but authorities warned anyone doing so would be seen as a traitor.

At the Kapkor Market in Phnom Penh, Meas Sinuon, 60, said she was pleased with Sunday's result.

"This government has done good things already," she said as she shopped for groceries. "But I want the new government to do more to help the people."

Another voter, a Phnom Penh tuk-tuk driver who declined to be identified, described the result as "same."