Just minutes after the polls closed Sunday, an orange-robed monk remonstrated with officials at a central Phnom Penh voting station, less than a kilometer from Prime Minister Hun Sen's House.
“Where was my name? They did not have my name,” he shouted, saying he wasn't listed to vote, even though he cast his ballot at the same place in previous elections.
His was a common complaint on Sunday. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed that more than 1 million voters were omitted from polling center lists all over the country, preventing them from voting in Cambodia’s closest election in nearly two decades.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy rejected the ruling party’s claim to victory on Monday morning, citing cheating and calling for an investigation into the alleged election fraud.
“We ask the government and the NEC [National Election Committee, Cambodia's electoral management body] to send a representative to join the committee we propose,” says Yim Sovann, spokesman for the CNRP.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the opposition’s call for an investigation, saying that opposition parties typically contest election results and that there are official agencies in place to address electoral complaints. “The NEC was established by the assembly and has this mandate, and there is also the Constitutional Council,” he says.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) says it has won 68 seats compared with the opposition's 55 – out of 123 available. Though the CNRP gained 26 seats for the new coalition, the opposition was satisfied by neither the increase nor the potential emergence of a two-party system.
Mr. Hun Sen has been in power in Cambodia since 1985, and the CPP had been widely expected to win the election, but the widespread reports of polling irregularities – including reports that the indelible ink used to indicate that someone had voted was easily washed off, and that voters went to the polls only to find out that someone else had already used their ballot – marred the results.
The Cambodian wing of Transparency International, a global corruption research group, called for an investigation, saying that 60 percent of polling stations had complaints from voters who said they were not on voter lists.
“It was rigged,” says Mam Sonando, a radio journalist jailed numerous times, most recently on charges of “insurrection,” adding that Cambodians may yet take to the streets to protest the election outcome.
Hun Sen, now winner of the country's past four elections, did little campaigning, leaving the CPP to run on its popular economic record and delivery of infrastructure to the countryside. But the CPP’s overtures came with a hint of menace, say analysts: Hun Sen also played on voter fears saying early in the election season that an opposition win could prompt civil war.
Sunday's vote came as a country, once synonymous with the mass murders of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, has seen an average 7 percent growth, powered by donor aid, clothing exports, and Chinese investment. Cambodia is still one of Asia's poorest countries, with 80 percent of the population working the land and income levels around the same as fellow garment-export hub Bangladesh.
Though the official election results won’t finish being tallied until around August 15, it appears this has been the closest race for Cambodia in almost two decades. Analysts say this is due in part to younger opposition voters who were energized by the return from self-imposed exile of Mr. Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader. (Read the Monitor reporting on the influence of young voters in Cambodia)
Sam Rainsy, a proponent of change, was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in prison in 2010 on charges he says were politically motivated, but was given a royal pardon last month. His party’s campaign may have been marred by repeated use of the derogatory term “yuon” to describe Vietnamese – a significant ethnic minority in Cambodia.
Borders between the ancient Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms have moved east and west over the centuries, while Hun Sen rose to office on the back of a 1979 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, which ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge from power.
But first-time voters such as Lyav Ly Houng, who hopes to start her own business once she finishes university, were motivated by a desire to see Cambodia become more prosperous. She says that regardless of who forms the next government, there needs to be more opportunities for Cambodians.
“The main thing is that this country can develop and the people can earn a living,” she says.
Kalyanee Mam, an award-winning Cambodian filmmaker who fled the Khmer Rouge as a child before resettling in the United States, says that Cambodia's next administration needs to do more to curb land grabs as well as improve working conditions in the garment sector and address the growing rich-poor gap.
“The big fear I have for this country is even if we continue to grow economically, we will just have a small group of very wealthy at the top, and a mass of poor underneath, with nothing in between,” she says.