NEW DELHI — Cambodia's longtime strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, extended his 28-year rule Sunday when his party was returned to power, according to preliminary election results, even as concern over corruption and illegal land appropriation fueled strong gains for the opposition.
Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party won 68 of 123 seats in the legislature, compared with 55 seats for the main opposition party, Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said, citing unofficial results. This is a significant decline from the 90 seats held by the ruling party since 2008, ending its two-thirds majority.
Hun Sen was so confident of victory after enjoying nearly three decades in power since the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979 that he didn't bother to campaign. More than 9 million of Cambodia's 15 million people were eligible to vote.
The National Election Committee is expected to release official results within the next few days.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party, a merger of several opposition parties led by former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, scored points with voters with calls to increase youth employment, end land disputes and stem corruption.
Rainsy returned to Cambodia a few days ago from four years of exile after he was granted a royal pardon on charges of racial incitement and destruction of property, charges the opposition said were politically motivated. Although his return may have energized the opposition, it was too late for him to run in the elections or even vote.
Observers said this appeared to be Cambodia's least-violent balloting since a 1991 cease-fire in the conflict-racked country ended decades of civil war and genocide. Voters have gone to the polls five times since 1993, when the United Nations organized landmark elections.
Opposition critics and civic groups allege, however, that the ruling party rigged ballots and used "ghost" voters and erasable ink to secure victory Sunday, accusations it denies. "The entire process is biased in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "What should result in the will of the people has been organized to result in the will of the Cambodian People's Party."
Over four weeks of campaigning, the ruling party stressed its ability to expand the economy and maintain stability in the Southeast Asian nation, warning that its defeat could return the country to civil war. The economy has grown at about 6% annually in recent years.
Deep social, political and economic scars remain from decades of conflict in Cambodia that were capped by the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge. That period was depicted in the 1984 British film "The Killing Fields."
Analysts expressed hope that Sunday's vote would strengthen democracy and spur greater participation by the electorate. "People empowerment is on the rise, they're becoming more courageous and demanding," said Vannarith Chheang, executive director of Phnom Penh's Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a civic group. "The increasing popularity and support of the opposition party sends a warning signal for the ruling party to deepen reforms with concrete and inclusive results."
A controversial charge made by the opposition during the campaign was that Hun Sen was a puppet of neighboring Vietnam, underscoring national sensitivities in the region. "Cambodia is caught between the tiger, China, and the crocodile, Vietnam, and needs to find its own ground," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, researching the Khmer Rouge period. "I just hope Cambodia will be able to build a foundation of democracy so reforms can take place and major issues can be addressed as we move into the future."