Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared set to extend his 28-year rule in one of Asia’s poorest countries with a much smaller majority, as opponents rejected election results and called for an investigation.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, won 68 seats in the 123-member parliament yesterday, compared with 55 seats for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party led by Sam Rainsy, government spokesman Phay Siphan said by phone yesterday. The country’s closest election in two decades slashed the CPP’s majority to 13 seats from more than 60.
“There are too many irregularities with far-reaching implications that has distorted and reversed the will of the people,” Sam Rainsy told reporters today in Phnom Penh at a briefing broadcast on his party’s website. He called for a broad investigation of the results to determine if a recount or another election is necessary.
The tight outcome may heighten pressure on Hun Sen to allow greater political freedoms after the opposition gained traction by focusing on forced evictions, land-grabs and workers’ rights. Sam Rainsy ended a four-year exile earlier this month after receiving a royal pardon for charges he says were politically motivated, and was barred from standing in the election.
Sam Rainsy called for the creation of a committee with representatives from political parties, civil society, the United Nations and “friendly countries” to investigate the outcome. The results would determine what action the opposition takes next, he said.
“We are asking this not in order to bargain a position in the government,” Sam Rainsy said. “What we are interested in is to render justice to the Cambodian people to ensure that the will of the Cambodian people will not be distorted.”
While the results may lead Hun Sen to adopt some of the opposition’s policy platform, there is little chance he’d yield to Sam Rainsy’s demands for an investigation, according to David Chandler, an emeritus professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
“He’s calling for international intervention, and Hun Sen always gets completely livid about that,” Chandler said by phone. “He’s playing to his supporters overseas and making a big fuss about it,” Chandler said, referring to Sam Rainsy. “The results are very encouraging for him” and he should “move on.”
Hun Sen’s government pledged to take a “mild” response to protesters. The government needs “to work hard,” Phay Siphan said yesterday, adding the numbers were based on party tallies and weren’t official results. The outcome “gives us an opportunity to reconcile and strengthen democracy in Cambodia.”
Opposition supporters in one area of Phnom Penh overturned military police trucks and set them on fire after saying their names didn’t appear on voter lists. Hundreds of onlookers, including monks and children, watched as the vehicles were set ablaze, according to footage broadcast on the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s website.
Others complained of being told they’d already cast a ballot when they arrived at a polling booth, according to Thun Saray, a board member of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a local poll monitor.
“Even so, the trend of the country now is that the opposition party is gaining a lot of support,” Thun Saray said. The group said the CPP won 67 seats, while the opposition took 56, with gains coming in all areas of the country.
National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.
The CPP has run the country since Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Hun Sen, 60, has served as prime minister in various coalitions since 1985, making him Asia’s second-longest serving leader in one of the region’s youngest countries, where more than half the 15 million people are under the age of 24.
Hun Sen’s party won 90 of 123 seats in the last poll in 2008, which the U.S. called an “improvement” over previous votes. The Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was formed last year to unify the two main opposition parties, nearly doubled its tally this year.
King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned Sam Rainsy, 64, earlier this month following a request from Hun Sen. The move helped neutralize criticism over Sam Rainsy’s exile.
In an interview last month, Sam Rainsy warned of violence if fraud tainted the election. He has sought to capitalize on increasing disputes over workers rights, the environment and land clearing by pledging to double the minimum monthly wage to $150 for factory workers and increase civil servant salaries.
Land disputes and forced evictions “continue unabated” and have led to clashes, the United Nations human rights office said in a report last year. Many activists and journalists who defend human rights fear for their lives, it said.
Hun Sen said last month the country’s garment and textile factories, which employ about 450,000 people, could shift to nearby countries like Laos and Myanmar if workers demand higher wages. The industry accounted for about 80 percent of the country’s exports last year, according to data from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
The economy, the third-smallest in Southeast Asia after Laos and Timor-Leste, grew 7.2 percent last year on higher consumption and investment, the Asian Development Bank said in April. Gross domestic product is forecast to expand at the same pace this year and 7.5 percent in 2014 as the U.S. and Europe buy more Cambodia-made garments and footwear, the ADB said.
The election result doesn’t reflect the will of the people, Son Chhay, a 20-year lawmaker and the opposition party whip, said by phone today.
“The question now is whether the people in general are willing to accept it,” he said. “Cambodia has to go back to implementing democratic principles and cannot allow an authoritarian-style, dictatorship way of governing continue to take place in this country.”
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