PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians voted in local elections Sunday that could shake longtime ruler Hun Sen’s grip on power.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly warned of civil war if his Cambodian People’s Party loses the majority in city and village councils to the main opposition party that made major gains in the last general elections four years ago and claimed it was cheated out of outright victory. The polls could have a major impact on Cambodia’s political landscape ahead of 2018 national elections.
Hun Sen and his wife were among the early voters Sunday. His government has been accused of using violence against opponents, but in recent years has stalked its foes mostly in courts.
After casting his vote, Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said he expects to win more than 60 percent of the vote. In the last communal elections in 2012, Hun Sen’s party received 60 percent compared to the CNRP’s 30.6 percent.
On Friday, Hun Sen appealed to political parties to accept the outcome rather than make accusations of irregularities, saying courts can dissolve any party if it challenges the result of the vote.
Hun Sen and some of his top ministers have frequently used strong rhetoric leading up to the vote, warning of dire consequences should the opposition win, in what has been seen as an attempt to intimidate voters into supporting him.
The ruling party could take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge’s regime in the 1970s. Hun Sen left the movement that was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and executions before it was toppled in 1979.
This week, Amnesty International accused Cambodia’s government of using its grip on the judiciary system to intimidate human rights defenders and political activists. It said in a report that since the 2013 general election, Hun Sen’s government has used the courts as a tool to imprison at least 27 prominent opposition officials, human rights defenders and land activists, as well as hundreds of others facing legal cases.
Also early this month, the State Department said the U.S. was urging Cambodia’s government to “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation” and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.