PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians went to the polls Sunday in an election almost certain to deliver another mandate for veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen amid cries of foul play by his opponents.
Hun Sen was among the early voters Sunday, casting his ballot near his home in Takhmau in Kandal province, south of the capital Phnom Penh. He was all smiles as he walked from his car to the polling station, but declined to speak to reporters after casting his ballot, presumably to conform to rules barring any sort of campaigning during the voting period.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy visited a polling station near his party's office in Phnom Penh, where hundreds of voters, particularly younger ones, greeted him enthusiastically, taking photos and a few bolder ones even hugging him.
"I am happy to see people flocking to vote," Rainsy told reporters, though he himself cannot vote and is not on the ballot because he failed to register in time, being in self-imposed exile until earlier this month.
The exile was to avoid a jail term for convictions he said were politically motivated. He returned on July 19 only after receiving a royal pardon at the behest of Hun Sen, his longtime and bitter rival.
The pardon was an evident effort by Hun Sen to appease critics of the election process, including the United States, who suggested that Rainsy's exclusion from the electoral process was a major sign that the polls would not be free and fair.
Critics charge the process is heavily rigged anyway. Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party and nonpartisan groups say that 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 say the election process is fair.
Rainsy visited several polling stations and commented on cases where people were unable to cast their votes because their names were not listed in the rolls.
"They couldn't find their names. They (were) either deleted or removed or assigned to another polling station. So, it's very confusing!" he said.
He said his party would wait to see more evidence before deciding what to do next, but if it was clear the voters' will was being denied, "definitely, there will be protests."
Voters in the capital 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 have voted today because I want to see Cambodia progress along with other countries in the world and I wanted to vote to select a real democratic leader for our country," he said. "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."
Rainsy, 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 he knew the election was unfair, but that his party was taking part "to show the Cambodian people that we are with them."
Hun Sen's party holds 90 of the 123 seats in the outgoing National Assembly. Although eight parties are running, the CNRP and CPP are the only serious contenders.
Opposition parties had held 29 seats in the assembly, but were kicked out of the body shortly before election 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.
Despite the poor prospects for change, the campaign has generated great excitement, especially among young people in Phnom Penh, where large crowds of supporters of the two main parties staged spirited rallies.
Hun Sen 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.
Hun Sen is running on a record of having restored peace and stability after decades of war and unrest, and promoting economic growth. The opposition decries 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.
There are 9.7 million registered voters in a population of almost 15 million. Just over half the electorate is under 30 years old.
The election campaign has not been marked by the kind of violence, including killings, which plagued past polls.