PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s embattled opposition made significant gains in this weekend’s local elections, early results showed Monday, a vote closely watched for signs of vulnerability in one of the world’s longest serving leaders.
More than seven million Cambodians voted in Sunday’s commune elections, the first time they have headed to the polls since 2013’s disputed election result.
The impoverished Southeast Asian nation has been run by prime minister Hun Sen for 32 years, a charismatic and wily strongman who tolerates little dissent and is accused of cracking down on the opposition in the run up to the vote.
National elections will be held in 2018 and Sunday’s vote was viewed as a warm up for those crunch polls.
In recent weeks Hun Sen has delivered a series of increasingly shrill speeches warning of civil war if his reign is toppled next year.
By early Monday both the premier’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) released preliminary figures that tallied with each other.
They showed some 51 percent of the popular votes going to Hun Sen’s CPP and 46 percent to the opposition.
Both sides portrayed the results as a victory.
“This is a big success for the CNRP,” opposition party spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters.
In a Facebook post Hun Sen hailed the result as “another victory” for his party adding: “The vote in 2018 won’t be much different from the vote in this election.”
But the opposition have particular reason to be optimistic.
If the popular vote is confirmed they would hold some 500 of the country’s 1,646 communes, up from 40 won five years ago.
The National Election Commission is expected to release preliminary results over the coming days which can then be challenged for discrepancies. Final official results will be published until June 25.
Sunday’s result suggests they have managed to grow their appeal even as the government cracks down on them and their supporters.
Rights groups and the opposition have accused Hun Sen of using the courts to pursue CNRP figures as well as dissidents and rights workers.
A tally by Amnesty International counts some 27 political prisoners placed behind bars since 2013 with dozens of ongoing prosecutions against others.
Supporters see the 64-year-old Hun Sen as a beacon of stability while detractors accuse him and a coterie of allies of huge self-enrichment, corruption and autocracy.
In a possible sign of nerves Hun Sen broke with his tradition of avoiding the campaign trail to lead a major CPP rally on Friday in Phnom Penh.
The opposition has proven particularly popular among young voters, who often complain about a culture of corruption that only seems to benefit a wealthy elite or those with the right connections.