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Hun Sen claims victory; US, EU question polls result

Critics say the election is a backward step for democracy in Cambodia

Vice-President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Mu Sochua (left) and CNRP deputy director for Foreign Affairs Monovithya Kem at a press conference in Jakarta on July 30. The CNRP called on the international community to reject the result of the election.

Phnom Penh

PRIME Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) said on Monday it had won all 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs in a general election a day earlier that critics said was neither free nor fair.

Cambodia woke to another chapter of rule by strongman Hun Sen a day after an election that was heavily criticised by rights groups, the United States and other Western countries. The EU said it lacked credibility and did not reflect the will of the people.

"The CPP won 77.5 per cent of the votes and won all the parliamentary seats," CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Reuters by telephone. "The other parties won no seats."

The White House said it would consider steps, including an expansion of visa restrictions placed on some Cambodian government members, in response to "flawed elections" in which there was no significant challenger to Hun Sen.

Critics say the election was a backward step for democracy in Cambodia following the dissolution last year of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges.

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile, said the election was a "hollow" victory for Mr Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 33 years.

The United States has imposed visa curbs on some Cambodian government members over a crackdown on critics and levied sanctions in June on a high-ranking official close to Hun Sen.

The European Union has threatened Cambodia with economic sanctions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that Sunday's vote "failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people".

"The flawed elections, which excluded the country's principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia's constitution," Ms Sanders said. The election campaign was marred by threats from national and local leaders, she said.

"The United States will consider additional steps to respond to the elections and other recent setbacks to democracy and human rights in Cambodia, including a significant expansion of the visa restrictions announced on Dec 6, 2017," Ms Sanders said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the White House statement was an attempt to intimidate Cambodia.

"This is against the Cambodians who went to vote to decide their own fate," Mr Phay Siphan told Reuters.

Even as the West criticised the process, Mr Hun Sen still has one important ally, China, which offered warm congratulations for a smooth election.

China has poured billions of dollars in development assistance and loans into Cambodia through bilateral frameworks and its Belt and Road initiative to build a new Silk Road.

"I believe that the Cambodian parliament election is an internal matter for Cambodia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Monday.

"We hope that the international community can provide constructive help for Cambodia to remain stable and achieve development."

CNRP deputy director of Foreign Affairs Monovithya Kem told a news conference in Jakarta on Monday the party welcomed the White House statement and hoped others would follow suit.

The CNRP also called on the international community to reject the result of the election.

"July 29, 2018, marked the death of democracy in Cambodia, a dark new day in recent history," said CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua. "The result announced by the CPP and the National Election Committee must be fully rejected by the international community."

Newspaper headlines in Cambodia on Monday greeted Mr Hun Sen's victory.

Some independent media were however targeted by Mr Hun Sen and his allies in a pre-election crackdown.

More than 82 per cent of those registered to vote cast a ballot, according to the National Election Committee. Turnout was 90 per cent in the 2017 local election and 69.61 per cent in the previous general election in 2013.

Polling stations visited by Reuters in the capital, Phnom Penh, were quiet on Sunday and some voters said they voted because not doing so would land them in trouble.

The CNRP had called on voters to boycott the election but authorities warned anyone doing so would be seen as a traitor.

At the Kapkor Market in Phnom Penh, Meas Sinuon, 60, said she was pleased with Sunday's result.

"This government has done good things already," she said as she shopped for groceries. "But I want the new government to do more to help the people."

Official election results are expected in mid-August. REUTERS