Cambodians vote in local election seen as test for strongman Hun Sen

PHNOM PENH: Cambodians voted on Sunday in local elections seen as a test of support for authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of Asia's longest serving leaders, ahead of a 2018 general election.

Hun Sen's warnings of violence if his party does not keep control in the elections and the arrests and intimidation of critics have drawn accusations from human rights groups that his government is undermining democracy.

Voters queued at polling stations in the capital Phnom Penh before they opened at 7 a.m. (0000 GMT). They close at 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) and results are expected in the hours after that.

"I voted for justice in society," said Chan Dy, 69, his finger marked with ink to ensure he could not vote again.

"This election will help to make work happen at the commune level. Corruption is a big problem and that's why I voted to have things work more smoothly," he said, declining to say which party he voted for.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has warned of possible violence if his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) does not keep control of the Southeast Asian country, which was devastated by genocide in the 1970s.

Since he came to power, Cambodia has emerged from its decades of conflict to clock annual economic growth rates above 7 percent. His increasingly close alliance with China has brought billions of dollars in loans for infrastructure projects.

"I have already seen improvements such as roads and bridges," said 25-year-old CPP voter Pech Rena.

But Hun Sen's critics say corruption is widespread, and the opposition did unexpectedly well in a 2013 general election.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is expected to again improve its showing in Sunday's communal elections, given that divided opposition parties secured only three percent of communes at the last local ballot.

The party's former leader, Sam Rainsy, resigned in February, saying he feared the government would try to ban the party if he did not. He lives in exile in France after being convicted on defamation charges he says were political motivated.

Cambodia's defence minister said during the campaign that if anyone protests against the results of the election on Sunday they will be "beaten until their teeth come out."