Ruling Party Wins Narrowly in Cambodian Vote
The New York Times: International
By Thomas Fuller
PHNOM PENH — After years of near total dominance in Cambodian politics, the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen won a relatively narrow victory in national elections on Sunday as a resurgent opposition rode a wave of disenchantment with the prime minister’s 28 years in power.

Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian information minister, told news services that according to a preliminary count, the governing party won 68 seats, or about 55 percent of the National Assembly’s 123 seats. In the assembly being replaced, the governing party controlled a commanding 90 seats.

“This is a historical day, a great day for Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader who returned from exile in France nine days before the election, told a news conference. “People came in great numbers to express their will and democracy seemed to move forward.”

The opposition won 55 seats, or about 45 percent of seats in the assembly, which will make it harder for Mr. Hun Sen to impose his will.

After years of a splintered opposition, the election signaled the arrival, permanent or not, of a de facto two-party system in Cambodia. The two largest opposition parties merged last year to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The opposition challenged the governing party, the Cambodian People’s Party, with a strikingly populist platform calling for a sharp rise in civil servants’ salaries, monthly payments to those over 65 years old, and an increase in the minimum wage. It also included a guaranteed, government-set price for agriculture products, lower gasoline costs and free health care for the poor.

Mr. Hun Sen’s party, as well as many analysts, questioned whether the opposition would be able to pay for all the proposed measures.

But in a country with wide income disparities, where 40 percent of children under 5 years old are malnourished and where more than two-thirds of households lack a flush toilet, the opposition’s program resonated. The opposition also highlighted corruption, land seizures and concessions of wide swaths of forest given to foreign companies, especially from China and Vietnam.

There are competing pictures of Cambodia two decades after the United Nations helped organize the country’s first multiparty elections in 1993. That followed the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.

Opposition leaders, foreign governments and many foreign analysts have criticized what they say is Mr. Hun Sen’s monopoly on power and the intimidation of his critics.

Patrick Merloe, an analyst with the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit organization that promotes free elections, told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representative in July that Cambodia “remains mired in a corrupt, quasi-authoritarian political system that has persisted even though the country receives massive amounts of aid to improve its governance.”

But Mr. Hun Sen’s supporters say they are grateful for the stability that his party has provided. This is especially true for those old enough to remember the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which led to the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, overwork and execution.

The International Republican Institute, another American nonprofit organization, conducted a poll of 2,000 Cambodians in January and February and reported that 79 percent of Cambodian respondents said the country was “generally headed in the right direction.” Only 20 percent of respondents said they were worse off than 5 years ago, when Mr. Hun Sen’s party won an overwhelming victory in the last general election.

David Chandler, a leading historian of Cambodia, said Mr. Hun Sen, 60, had stayed in power 28 years through a mix of political threats, intimidation — and by delivering tangible improvements to people’s lives.

“There are more roads, more factories, more motorcycles — the patronage flows down and the loyalty flows up,” Mr. Chandler said Sunday.

But Mr. Hun Sen has shown himself to be ruthless when threatened politically, Mr. Chandler added. “Whenever this government shows its teeth, it bites into people,” he said.

As in years past, officials from the governing party said during the campaign that voters should show their gratitude for three decades of peace, an argument that still has some resonance among some Cambodians.

Karona Pok, a 32-year-old receptionist at a charity, said she had voted for the governing party because “we wouldn’t be here today” had Mr. Hun Sen along with Vietnamese-backed troops not invaded the country and driven out the Khmer Rouge.

Election monitoring groups reported numerous problems with the election. Supposedly indelible ink to prevent people from casting votes more than once, for example, was easily removed with lime juice or bleach, observers said. And scores of voters were turned away because their names were not found on the list, causing minor scuffles at one Phnom Penh voting station. It was unclear late Sunday whether the opposition would pursue earlier claims that the election was unfair.

The slimmer majority for the governing party is politically significant because Mr. Hun Sen will now need support from opposition members to amend the Constitution, which requires the approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly. The opposition also now has the power to deny a quorum in the assembly, the minimum votes required to make proceedings valid. Seven-tenths of the assembly must be present to achieve a quorum.

Mr. Rainsy, a former finance minister who spent much of his early adult life in France, led the opposition’s campaign but was barred from voting or standing as a candidate by the country’s election committee. After spending the past four years abroad, he returned to the country July 19 after Mr. Hun Sen, under pressure from foreign governments, issued a last-minute pardon for a conviction of racial incitement and other charges filed by the government four years ago.

Mr. Rainsy, 64, was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters when he arrived at the Phnom Penh airport and his campaign rallies have attracted thousands more. During his week of campaigning Mr. Rainsy exploited anti-Vietnamese sentiments in the country by railing against “invading” Vietnamese, using a coarse term to describe them. Similar outbursts led to his conviction for racial incitement in 2010.

Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Phnom Penh.

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