Cambodia’s long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen has claimed victory in a controversial election that was overshadowed by the forced absence of a viable opposition candidate.
The country’s chief government spokesman confirmed the results on Sunday evening, saying the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won an estimated 100 out of 125 parliamentary seats.
“The CPP won 80 percent of all the votes and we estimate we will win not less than 100 seats,” Sok Eysan told Reuters news agency.
Results are still being counted, with the official result not expected until mid-August.
Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia for 33 years and said he wants to hold office for at least another 10, campaigned on promises of continued economic development, peace and stability.
But critics have condemned the vote as illegitimate and called for a boycott following the dissolution of the largest opposition political force – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – and a government crackdown against dissent.
The ballot included 19 small, lesser-known parties that observers said do not present a meaningful challenge to Hun Sen’s CPP.
However, officials said the number of parties in the race shows Cambodia has a multi-party democracy.
Sunday’s election was the country’s sixth since 1993 when it emerged from decades of war.
The CNRP, which almost won five years ago, was dissolved in November 2017 by court order at the government’s request. This followed the jailing of party leader Kem Sokha on widely criticised treason charges that he denies.
In Phnom Penh, polling stations were uncharacteristically quiet on Sunday. In past elections, long lines and an atmosphere of excitement pervaded.
The national election agency reported voter turnout at about 80 percent. In the 2013 election, 69 percent of eligible voters participated, and in local elections last year, turnout was nearly 90 percent.
“I vote because it’s our mission. I think it’s very important,” said Sok Vattanak, accompanying his wife at a polling station in the capital. “I vote for a different party year to year to see which one is better.”
One voter, who asked to remain anonymous fearing reprisals, said there was an atmosphere of fear surrounding the polls.
“I can’t talk, there’s too many problems … It’s not secure, people get killed. Even journalists have problems. I want to have change, but how can we? I want to have liberty like the US, like other countries,” he said.
Fund for Reconciliation and Development NGO Executive Director John McCauliff, an election observer with experience dating back to 1993, said between 20-35 percent of votes were spoiled at polling stations his group observed.
“That is a challenge now for the CPP,” he told Al Jazeera. “The second largest party is the spoiled ballot party.”
Officials said people advocating against voting could be prosecuted with fines up to $5,000.
Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Stimson Center, said the vote “will result in a continuation of Hun Sen’s authoritarian grip over Cambodia, which continues to deepen, so it’s no surprise that the exiled CNRP opposition party is calling this a sham and calling for a boycott”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Washington, DC, Eyler added: “Hun Sen’s CPP is saying. ‘if you do not vote, you are against democracy’, instead of promoting multiparty democracy and robust participation of opposition parties.”
A number of countries, including Russia, China and Indonesia, sent hundreds of observers to watch polling but Japan, a long-time supporter of the Cambodian government, refused to do so.
The United States and European Union, meanwhile, withdrew funding for the election.
Professor Hassan Ghafoori Fard, a former vice president of Iran, was part of the delegation of international election observers.
“I think it’s going OK, smoothly, it’s a very free election,” Fard told Al Jazeera. “The reason that they have invited so many people to observe – that means they are confident about what they are doing. Everything is clear and transparent.”
Preliminary results are expected to be announced at 6pm (11:00 GMT). Official results will not be available until mid-August.
Abby Seiff and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon contributed to this report from Phnom Penh