PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians went to the polls Sunday in an election almost certain to deliver another mandate for long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen amid cries of foul play by his opponents.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades, was among the early voters, casting his ballot just after the polls opened near his home in Takhmau, just south of the capital, Phnom Penh.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who returned from self-exile this month, began his day with a visit to a polling station near his party's office in Phnom Penh. Hundreds of voters, particularly younger ones, greeted him enthusiastically, with some of the bolder ones hugging him.
Counting of the paper ballots at polling stations began shortly after the polls closed at 3 p.m., with representatives of political parties witnessing the process. The first unofficial results were not expected until Sunday evening.
The general election was Cambodia's fifth since 1993, when the United Nations helped stage the country's first free polls since the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge and a subsequent period of civil war and one-party rule.
There were many reports of voting irregularities on social media from local journalists and election watchdog groups, but an overall picture was unlikely to emerge until Monday at the earliest.
Passions boiled over at one polling station in Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey district, where Associated Press reporters saw two official vehicles that had been destroyed by rioters. Military police, who in Cambodia are used in a civilian capacity, were deployed to restore order. Exactly what sparked the violence was unclear, but the crowd appeared to have been angered when some were denied the right to vote.
Rainsy said his party would wait before deciding what to do about the alleged irregularities, but added that if it was clear the voters' will was being denied, "definitely, there will be protests."
The streets around Hun Sen's residence in Phnom Penh were closed Sunday, with many police patrolling in an apparent effort to ward off protesters.
"I am happy to see people flocking to vote," Rainsy told reporters, though he himself was unable to vote and was not on the ballot because he failed to register in time because of his self-imposed exile.
Rainsy had stayed abroad for almost four years to avoid a jail term for convictions that he said were politically motivated. He returned July 19 only after receiving a royal pardon at the behest of Hun Sen, his longtime and bitter rival.
The pardon was an apparent effort by Hun Sen to appease critics of the election process, including the United States, who suggested that Rainsy's exclusion was a major sign that the polls would not be free and fair.
But even with Rainsy's inclusion, critics have still charged that the process is heavily rigged. Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party and nonpartisan groups say the ruling party uses the machinery of government and security forces in an unfair manner to reward or pressure voters.
They also say that voter registration procedures were badly flawed, possibly leaving more than 1 million people disenfranchised. The independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections said Saturday that the ink with which voters were supposed to stain their fingers to prevent them from voting twice was not indelible as claimed.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the government-appointed National Election Committee have said the election process is fair.
Rainsy said he visited several polling stations Sunday and noted cases where people who thought they were registered were unable to vote because their names were not listed in the rolls.
"They couldn't find their names," he said. "They (were) either deleted or removed or assigned to another polling station. So it's very confusing."
Voters in Phnom Penh seemed proud to be able to cast their ballots. Sixty-eight-year-old Meas Rith, who was voting with his wife, said he had been waiting five years since the last polls and finally received satisfaction Sunday.
"I don't mind who wins the election, but I want this vote to be free and fair, and the winner to triumph honestly and the loser to lose with grace," he said
Rainsy, 64, anticipating a second-place finish, told reporters Saturday that any gains his party makes would be significant, and would set the stage for a long fight for fair elections. He said that even though he believed the election was unfair, his party was taking part "to show the Cambodian people that we are with them."
Before the election, Hun Sen's party held 90 of the 123 seats in the outgoing National Assembly. Although eight parties were running, the CNRP and CPP were the only serious contenders.
Opposition parties had held 29 seats in the assembly, but were kicked out of the body shortly before campaigning began on the technical grounds that they had registered to run in the name of the new CNRP, formed by a merger of the two existing opposition parties under whose banners they had won their seats.
The campaign generated great excitement, especially among young people in Phnom Penh, where large crowds of supporters of the two main parties staged spirited rallies. Cambodia has 9.7 million registered voters in a population of almost 15 million, and just over half the electorate is under 30 years old.
Hun Sen, 60, has been in power for 28 years and says he has no intention of stepping down soon. His authoritarian rule has given him a stranglehold over the state bureaucracy that makes challenges to his authority difficult to mount.
The prime minister ran on a record of having restored peace and stability after decades of war and unrest, and promoting economic growth. The opposition decried corruption and injustice, especially reflected in widespread land-grabbing that see influential companies and businessmen develop property from which thousands of people have been evicted.
The election campaign was not marked by the kind of violence, including killings, that plagued past polls.