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By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH | Mon Jul 29, 2013 6:12am EDT
(Reuters) – Cambodia’s long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen faced his biggest political setback in two decades on Monday as the country’s opposition rejected an election result as tainted by widespread fraud, despite heavy losses for the ruling party.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, buoyed by a near doubling of seats in parliament, called for an inquiry into what he called massive manipulation of electoral rolls in Sunday’s vote.
The government announced late on Sunday that Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won 68 seats in the 123-seat parliament to the opposition’s 55, a loss of 22 seats for the ruling party.
That marked the 60-year-old Hun Sen’s worst election result since the war-torn country returned to full democracy in 1998, although the CPP retained a governing majority to enable the prime minister to extend his 28-year rule.
Prolonged wrangling over the result and a weakened Hun Sen could raise policy uncertainty in the small but fast-growing Southeast Asian nation that is drawing growing investor interest and has forged strong economic ties with China and Vietnam.
But the opposition’s chances of overturning the outcome are slim given the ruling party’s grip on the courts and with major foreign donors like the United States unlikely to reject the result without evidence of massive fraud.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose campaign was given a boost by the return from exile of leader Sam Rainsy, said it wanted an investigation committee set up with representatives from political parties, the United Nations, the election authority and non-governmental organizations.
“There were 1.2 million to 1.3 million people whose names were missing and could not vote. They deleted our rights to vote, how could we recognize this election?” Sam Rainsy, a French-educated former finance minister, told a news conference.
“There were ghost names, names only on paper.”
The opposition tapped into growing concern among Cambodians over rising inequality and entrenched corruption that Hun Sen’s critics say his policies have exacerbated.
Hun Sen, who has yet to speak publicly about the outcome, may have to adjust some policies in light of the surge in opposition support and show more sensitivity to public opinion. The loss of its two-thirds majority means the CPP will need opposition support to enact any changes in the constitution.
But Hun Sen still has the ability to control policymaking through his majority and the entrenched networks of political influence he has built within the CPP.
“It’s definitely unprecedented and unexpected but for now I don’t think regime stability is at stake,” said Giulia Zino, a Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks group in Singapore.
The CPP had 90 seats in the outgoing parliament and the parties that united to form the CNRP had 29, with minor parties holding the remaining four. Cambodia’s election commission has yet to announce how many seats each party has won, and will not announce full, official results until August 15 at the earliest.
Rights groups have criticized the electoral system as heavily biased in favor of the ruling party. The European Union declined to deploy poll monitors for this election after Cambodia did not act on its previous recommendations.
The Transparency International group, which helped monitor the election, cited various irregularities in the vote and said in a statement it was “very concerned about the disenfranchisement of citizens and suspect voters”.
Voting on Sunday, like the campaign itself, was for the most part peaceful.
The CPP, backed by a compliant domestic media and superior resources, had been confident of victory. Analysts had predicted a reduction in its majority after the merger of two main opposition parties, as well as the return of Sam Rainsy, but the extent of opposition gains was a surprise.
Rising garment exports plus heavy flows of aid and investment from China have fuelled rapid economic growth, but that has been accompanied by a rise in social tension.
Cambodians have protested more frequently over poor conditions in the garment industry and land rights in the country of 14 million, where a third of people live on less than 65 U.S. cents per day.
The urban population has swelled in recent years, giving rise to a new generation of young voters who have access to wider sources of information online and who tend to support the opposition.
“Democracy is stronger in Cambodia than most outsiders anticipated,” said Douglas Clayton, the chief executive of the Leopard Capital investment fund in Phnom Penh.
“The government will likely become more consultative and sensitive to public opinion.”
The United Nations organized an election in 1993 that put Cambodia on a rocky path towards stability after decades of turmoil that included the 1975-79 “Killing Fields” rule of the communist Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen, a former junior commander in the Khmer Rouge who broke away during their rule, lost that election but refused to accept the result and negotiated a position as joint prime minister before seizing power in a coup in 1997.
(Writing by Alan Raybould and Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH | Sun Jul 28, 2013 7:36pm EDT
(Reuters) – Cambodia’s ruling party won Sunday’s general election but with a much-reduced majority, according to the government, a result that will be seen as a setback for authoritarian leader Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers.
Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and information minister, said on his Facebook page the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 68 seats in parliament to the opposition’s 55, adding that was the final count.
The National Election Committee (NEC) gave a list of results from each polling station but no tally for parliamentary seats.
Backed by a compliant media and with superior resources, the CPP was confident of victory, but analysts had predicted a reduction in its majority after the merger of two main opposition parties plus the return from self-imposed exile of popular long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
While not formally conceding defeat for his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy was conciliatory and called for calm after what were significant gains for the party.
“We want to thank all Cambodian people … regardless of their political affiliation, Cambodians who support all political parties, for their dignified participation in this election, for their contribution to make democracy move forward,” he told a news briefing.
The CPP had 90 of the 123 seats in the outgoing parliament and the parties that united to form the CNRP had just 29.
Sam Rainsy appealed to his youthful supporters not to cause any trouble. “We call for peace and reconciliation,” he said.
Military police blocked off a road leading to the home of Hun Sen, who has been in power for 28 years, and one going to the offices of the CPP and the NEC.
Trucks carrying soldiers were seen going into the city but by late evening the streets were calm.
Earlier, in a highly charged atmosphere, an angry crowd had set fire to two police cars outside a polling station, a Reuters photographer said.
However, voting, like the campaign itself, was for the most part peaceful despite anger at alleged electoral fraud.
Sam Rainsy’s party claimed electoral lists were manipulated to give the CPP more votes and complained about the disruption of meetings and campaigning by the security forces for Hun Sen.
“The partisanship of the military and police has created an intimidating atmosphere for voters in many parts of the country,” U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of the poll.
ROCKY PATH TO STABILITY
The United Nations organized an election in 1993 that put Cambodia on a rocky path towards stability after decades of turmoil, including the 1975-79 “Killing Fields” rule of the communist Khmer Rouge.
Under Hun Sen, a former junior commander in the Khmer Rouge who broke away during their rule, Cambodia has been transformed into one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies, helped by garment exports plus aid money and investment from China.
But economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in social tension over poor factory conditions and rural land rights in a country of 14 million where a third of the people live on less than 65 U.S. cents a day.
Before a royal pardon this month, Sam Rainsy had faced a jail sentence handed down in 2010 for spreading disinformation and falsifying maps to contest a new border agreed with Vietnam, charges he called politically motivated.
He returned too late to run in the election or even to vote, and the electoral authorities rejected his request to do so.
But the charismatic former finance minister had attracted large crowds to rallies, appealing to younger voters with no memory of the turmoil before Hun Sen helped restore stability.
At one polling station set up at a pagoda in Phnom Penh, 29-year-old Khat Sreynit said she wanted a better country and jobs for university graduates. “And also that people have a living wage,” she said, before rushing into the crowd to get a glimpse of Sam Rainsy, who had turned up there.
A 70-year-old voter clutching an ID card declined to give her name but said: “This election is important for the country. I have always voted before, since 1993, I voted for living conditions and the country.” She paid little attention to Sam Rainsy’s arrival.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)