Voting brisk as Cambodia election begins

More than eight million voters are registered to cast a ballot in the sixth general election since the United Nations first sponsored hopeful polls in 1993. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
More than eight million voters are registered to cast a ballot in the sixth general election since the United Nations first sponsored hopeful polls in 1993. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Cambodians wait in line to cast their vote at Stung Meanchey temple, Phnom Penh, on July 29, 2018. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

PHNOM PENH - Voters began streaming into Cambodia's polling stations on Sunday morning (July 29) after weeks of campaigning marked by calls from political exiles to boycott the one-sided election.

Shops shuttered and Phnom Penh's streets fell silent as voters cast their ballots and had their fingertips dabbed in indelible ink.

Officials had warned people against advocating the "clean finger" campaign started by members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by a court ruling in November last year (2017) after posing the biggest threat to the ruling Cambodian People's Party's (CPP's) dominance in recent years. CNRP's then president Kem Sokha was arrested last September for alleged treason and remains in pre-trial detention.

With the 19 opposition parties expected to pose little challenge to the ruling CPP, caretaker prime minister Hun Sen looks set to extend his 33 years in power. Analysts say the CPP may even win by a larger margin if opposition supporters sit out the polls.

More than eight million voters are registered to vote in the election, with 125 Parliament seats up for grabs.

In Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey commune, voters massed at polling booths even before voting began at 7am.

"Those smaller parties have fewer supporters, but it doesn't mean they have no supporters," Mr Sem San, a 21-year-old baker, told The Straits Times.

By the windy riverside in Phnom Penh, hotel general manager Chay Dara, 32, told The Straits Times he thought little of the declarations by human rights groups and CNRP supporters that this was a sham election. "I have my own parliamentarians to vote for," he said. "I vote for the development of this country."

Caretaker information minister Khieu Kanharith, who patiently waited for his turn at Toul Kork Primary School to cast his ballot, told reporters afterwards that voting was "smooth" so far.

Asked if he expected the ruling CPP to win by a large margin, he said: "Not sure, because… you have 20 political parties."

He added: "In a Cambodia election, you vote for the party you like, you vote for the people you like, you vote for your family."

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CNRP won 55 out of the 123 Parliament seats at stake in the 2013 election, as well as 489 out of 1,646 commune council chief seats nationwide in the local elections last year, but its seats were redistributed after the party's dissolution.

Over the past year, several independent outlets, citing pressure from the government, have ceased operations. On Saturday, officials confirmed to Voice of America (VOA) journalists that they had ordered Internet service providers to block access at least 15 websites, including the Voice of America's Khmer service, the Radio Free Asia's Khmer service, and the Voice of Democracy.

When asked, Mr Phos Sovann, director-general of information and broadcasting at the Ministry of Information, told VOA that these outlets were citing overseas sources who were disrupting elections.

While it is not a crime to abstain from voting, officials have repeatedly warned that inciting others to do so can be construed as obstructing the polls - and offenders risk a hefty fine. Five former CNRP activists who posted pictures of their clean fingers on Facebook were fined 10 million riel (S$3,300) each by an election body.

In the last general election in 2013, 69.6 per cent of voters cast their ballot. The commune elections last year got a record 90 per cent turnout.

Mr Dim Sovannarom, a spokesman for the National Election Committee, told reporters on Saturday that he expected a turnout of more than 60 per cent.

Voting ends at 3pm local time (4pm Singapore time) today.

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