Cambodia ruling party sweeps Senate vote in absence of opposition

Phnom Penh (AFP) - Cambodia's ruling party swept controversial Senate elections on Sunday, early results suggest, in a vote derided as a "farce" by critics as it proceeded without a viable opposition.

Premier Hun Sen has overseen a crackdown on the press, civil society and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was disbanded following a court ruling last November not long after its leader was arrested on treason charges.

The Senate vote arouses little interest in Cambodia because the upper house is seen as a rubber-stamp body and candidates are elected by other officials rather than the public, but the result is a sign of things to come in the general election set for July.

Preliminary results released by the National Election Committee late Sunday showed that Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) received around 11,200 votes, which should give it enough to win the seats up for grabs.

In the Senate election 58 seats are voted on by local commune councillors and lawmakers, while the country's king and the National Assembly each put forward two candidates to reach a total of 62.

The former opposition CNRP had no say in the poll as its parliamentary and commune seats were redistributed to other parties following its dissolution, with the CPP holding some 95 percent of the local positions.

Despite the lopsided line-up, ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan described the win as a "big victory", saying the CPP "may have won all 58 seats."

In an earlier interview he brushed off allegations that the election was undemocratic.

"CPP is regretful that we lost a main challenger but we cannot help them because they violated the law," he said, referring to the opposition party.

Final results are expected in early March.

Turnout was more than 99 percent, the NEC said at a press conference after voting closed. A total of four groups, including the royalist Funcinpec Party, took part.

It was the first time that the Senate election had been held without a main opposition party. The six-year-term Senate was formed in 1999 and its first election was held in 2006.

Opposition figure Sam Rainsy, who helped co-found the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said in a statement from abroad that the Senate election was a "farce" and urged the international community to condemn it.

Western democracies and rights groups have slammed Hun Sen's effort to push out rivals.

The EU and the US have withdrawn support for the July election, while Germany has suspended preferential visa treatment for private travel for Hun Sen and his family.

Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia", said the main effect of the CPP's recent clampdown "has been simply to remove the pretence (of a functional democracy) and entrench a new era of less apologetic one-party domination".

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