PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's ruling and opposition parties expressed satisfaction with the results of Sunday's local elections, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party retained its dominance in most regions but lost ground to its opponents.
The polls were seen as a test of strength ahead of next year's more crucial general election, which is widely seen as posing a major challenge to Hun Sen's continued three-decade rule.
Hun Sen said on his Facebook page Monday that his party still received strong support from the voters, obtaining 51 percent of the total popular vote. About 7 million people cast ballots, more than 80 percent of those eligible. Party spokesman Sok Eysan said it triumphed in 1,158 of the 1,646 communes, with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party winning 487.
The opposition party issued similar totals, but noted that it boosted its share of the popular vote to about 46 percent from 30 percent in the 2012 elections, while the ruling party's share declined from 62 percent.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann described Sunday's vote as a "huge victory" for his party.
It may, however, have fallen short of expectations. After casting his ballot Sunday, recently appointed opposition leader Kem Sokha said he expected to win more than 60 percent of the vote.
There was relatively little controversy over the elections, aside from some allegations that soldiers were moved to boost the government totals in some areas. The lack of acrimony was in sharp contrast to the 2013 general election, when the opposition accused the government of large-scale voter suppression and vote rigging.
The opposition had hoped to mount a showing that would build on its unexpectedly strong surge in the 2013 general election.
Hun Sen has held power for three decades, employing authoritarian methods in a nominally democratic framework. After being shocked by the strong challenge he faced in 2013, he moved to undermine the opposition, using pliant courts and a rubber-stamp legislature to neutralize opposition leaders with a series of politically motivated lawsuits and criminal charges.
The charismatic opposition party leader, Sam Rainsy, already in exile to avoid a prison term, was pressured to resign his position and party membership under the threat of having his party dissolved altogether.
There is concern that Hun Sen now will turn up the pressure even more on his opponents ahead of next year's general election.
Hun Sen and some of his top ministers frequently used strong rhetoric leading up to Sunday's vote, warning of dire consequences should the opposition win, in what has been seen as an attempt to intimidate voters into supporting him.
He repeatedly warned of civil war if his party lost its majority in city and village councils to the opposition. Cambodia was devastated by civil war in the 1970s and sporadic guerrilla attacks that lasted into the 1990s. His ruling party can take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge's regime in the 1970s.
Comprehensive official results of Sunday's polls are due to be announced on June 25.