Millions of Cambodians started voting in local polls on Sunday, testing the political temperature of a country rife with tension between its strongman premier and an embattled opposition determined to end his three-decade rule.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has run Cambodia for 32-years, one of the world’s longest serving leaders.
Supporters see the 64-year-old as a beacon of stability while detractors accuse him and a coterie of allies of huge self-enrichment, corruption and autocracy.
Sunday’s vote in more than 1,600 communes — village clusters — is seen as a warm up to next year’s crunch national elections.
But the opposition has been hammered by a crackdown in recent months with critics jailed and the main political rival to Hun Sen fleeing overseas to escape charges.
Hun Sen cast his ballot shortly after polls opened at 7am (0000 GMT) in Takhmao, a town on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where he has a residence and a nearby bodyguard unit stationed.
He declined to speak to media but appeared relaxed, smiling and waving to voters as he passed.
Many voters at the same polling station cited Hun Sen oft-repeated mantra of stability.
“I voted for his party because he has done many good things for the country,” 68-year-old Rath Chy told AFP. “I need peace, stability and development.”
But support for Hun Sen is far from universal.
The last time Cambodians went to the polls — national elections in 2013 — the opposition made huge gains, spurred in part by a significant appetite for change among young voters.
The opposition says it only lost that vote because of widespread fraud, something the government denies.
But analysts say that result was a scare for a leader unused to losing and that the recent crackdown on the opposition is an attempt to ensure no repeat.
In a possible sign of nerves Hun Sen broke with his tradition of avoiding the campaign trail to lead a massive pro-government rally for his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on Friday in Phnom Penh.
He has also given a series of increasingly shrill speeches in recent weeks, warning of war if he or his party loses power.
The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) also held a rally on Friday but it was noticeably smaller in size.
They have proven particularly popular among young voters who often complain about a culture of corruption that only seems to benefit a wealthy elite or those with the right connections.
Cambodia has one of the world’s youngest population, with some 70 percent of the country under 30 and their growing political clout is being heavily courted.
Yet the opposition movement has been dented by Hun Sen’s crackdown, with at least 27 Cambodian human rights defenders and political activists thrown behind bars since 2013, according to a recent Amnesty International report.
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