Millions began casting their vote early this morning in what is expected to be the most hotly contested election in more than a decade.
Some 9.6 million Cambodians are registered to vote, and though turnout has been dropping since the first democratic election in 1993, many observers believe an unusually vibrant campaign period will see unprecedented numbers casting a ballot today.
Despite a heated campaign, voting has thus far appeared orderly at stations across the country, with only a handful of anecdotal reports of missing names or ID difficulties.
In Kandal, a silent Prime Minister Hun Sen drew smiles from fellow voters as he kissed his ballot before dropping it in the box and holding up his inked finger for inspection.
Though Hun Sen had vowed to keep his lips sealed through the entire monthlong campaign until the end of Election Day, his fellow officials had made no such promises and boasted to reporters of big wins.
“We have six of eight seats. I think we will get the same number of seats. We will not lose any,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng said in Battambang after casting a ballot while surrounded by three bodyguards.
Speaking in Kampong Cham, National Assembly President Heng Samrin said he was confident his party “will win 11 seats”. That’s the number the ruling Cambodian People’s Party already holds in this most-populous province of 18 seats.
But they will likely face a tough battle from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which appears to be making inroads. CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha called Samrin’s boasts impossible, saying the CPP would score 11 seats only “if they cheat”.
“I believe that I will win 12 seats,” he said.
Though he himself is ineligible to vote, stricken from the list last year in light of his since-overturned convictions, CNRP president Sam Rainsy spent the morning touring polling stations — drawing manic attention when voters spied him.
At Chak Angre Leu pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, police used a loudspeaker to order people to remain calm as Rainsy made bold claims of conspiracy to a group of reporters.
“Lets wait for more evidence … but many indications point to the same plan or plot to rig the election in the way that would reverse the will of the people,” he said, after explaining that there were concerns voters were not able to physically tick number 7 — the party’s position on the ballot.
The National Election Committee addressed that rumour at a press conference Saturday evening, seeking to tamp down claims that a special ballot paper which erased tick marks from box number 7 had been disseminated.
A second rumour that has gained traction over the weekend — that the indelible ink can be cleaned from a voter’s finger — however, appears to have been borne out.
In Niroth, in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, a group of students armed with bleach sat near the polling station rubbing the purple stain from their fingers and from an angry group of voters, furious to see how easily the so-called indelible ink could be removed.
The CNRP’s Sokha said the party had seen similar issues across the country, testing the ink themselves and confirming “it can be scrubbed off”.
Cheang Sokha and Aim Valinda reporting from Phnom Penh; Vong Sokheng reporting from Kandal; Phak Seangly and Kevin Ponniah reporting from Battambang; May Titthara and Stuart White reporting from Kampong Cham; Mom Kunthear and Shane Worrell reporting from Prey Veng