ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
PM Hun Sen favoured to win
Cambodians looked set to extend Prime Minister Hun Sen's 23-year rule in elections Sunday, after a campaign overshadowed by a tense military standoff in a border dispute with Thailand, reported AFP.
The 15,000 polling stations opened at 7:00am local time for eight hours of balloting, conducted under the eyes of 13,000 domestic and international observers. Scores of people were waiting in line when voting began in the capital Phnom Penh.
More than eight million people are registered to vote. Official results could take days to be announced, but the parties are expected to release their own tallies Sunday evening.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) says it wants to expand its majority in the 123-seat parliament so that it can form a single-party government.
The CPP currently has 73 seats, and under new rules party officials say they expect to clinch at least eight more.
The territorial feud with Thailand over a small patch of land near the ruins of an ancient Khmer temple has stoked nationalist sentiment here in the run-up to the vote.
Thousands of soldiers from both sides are facing off near the mountaintop Preah Vihear temple. Hun Sen has flatly accused Thailand of defying international law and threatening regional peace by sending troops into the disputed zone.
With foreign ministers set to meet Monday in hopes of resolving the deal, the confrontation has pulled the nation's attention away from a campaign in which no one has emerged as a viable threat to the CPP.
"The Preah Vihear military standoff has attracted much of the attention of voters," said Thun Saray of the local election monitoring body Comfrel. The conflict does not appear to have hurt Hun Sen's popularity.
A booming economy has bolstered his standing in a country struggling to lift itself from the ranks of the world's poorest nations.
Once a Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter, Hun Sen abandoned the movement to stake his political future with the CPP, which was installed as the ruling party after Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and created a client state to stop border incursions.
Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985, and has steadily cemented his grip on power. In the current campaign, Hun Sen has been aided by his opponents' mistakes. His current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec party, has imploded under internal corruption scandals.
The leading opposition Sam Rainsy Party is expected to maintain its strength in the capital but has made few inroads into rural Cambodia, where most voters live.
Although the campaign has been less violent than past elections, Human Rights Watch warned that a history of violence remains a source of intimidation against the opposition.
The CPP's near monopoly on broadcast media has also undermined the opposition's efforts to woo voters, especially in rural parts of the country. The CPP is touted to take up to 80 of 123 seats nationally and thousands of international observers have arrived to monitor polls.
"Now everybody is behind the government because it's the only institution that can deal with the Thai government. That means more votes for (Hun Sen)," the Associated Press quoted Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor.
Internationally, Hun Sen has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But he argues that his tenure has ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge's genocidal reign from 1975-1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people.
Under his free-market policies, Cambodia's economy has been one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 percent in each of the past three years.
Threats, intimidation and unequal media access had hurt the Cambodian opposition, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a press release Saturday, a day before national elections.
"Elections in Cambodia under existing conditions devalue the process," German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) quoted Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, as saying. "Election observers from genuine democracies would never accept at home the CPP's grip on the media or the fear and intimidation faced."
Despite an ongoing police investigation, it blamed the CPP for the murder of opposition journalist Khim Sambo earlier this month, saying the killing "appears to have been timed ... to have the maximum chilling effect."
It also accused the CPP of making "lucrative offers of high-paying government positions" to coerce key opposition officials to defect and threatening those who did not.
However it conceded there had been a decrease in violence compared to previous elections, claiming this was because the CPP was expected to win the elections so handsomely.
On July 17 the National Election Committee released a statement accusing 13 broadcasters of bias, including Bayon TV, owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen's daughter, and the CPP's Apsara TV, as well as pro-opposition US-funded stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
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