PHNOM PENH: Cambodia went to the polls early Sunday in an election set to be easily won by strongman premier Hun Sen after the only credible opposition was dissolved last year, effectively turning the country into a one-party state.
More than eight million voters are registered to cast a ballot in the sixth general election since the United Nations first sponsored polls in 1993, as the country emerged from decades of war.
"All polling stations opened at 7am," a spokesman for the National Election Commission told AFP.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985, was a former member of the hardline Khmer Rouge regime but defected and was installed as leader during the Vietnamese occupation of the 1980s.
His Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has won every election since 1998 and the 65-year-old strongman has been in power for 33 years, trumpeting the peace, stability and economic growth of his years in power.
Analysts will be watching for voter turnout on Sunday in what is essentially a referendum on Hun Sen's popularity, after the rival CNRP were dissolved by a Supreme Court decision last year.
"This election is very important to me, I come to vote because I want happiness, development and peace for the country," said voter Im Chanthan, 54, who said she was "happy" to be casting a ballot in the same polling station as Hun Sen.
Dissatisfaction with corruption and a growing youth population with no memory of the Khmer Rouge helped the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) win more than 44 percent of the 2013 vote and carve out a similar share in local elections last year.
That success spurred a crackdown by Hun Sen, who accused the opposition CNRP of being involved in a plot to topple the government.
Police last year arrested and charged one of the opposition leaders with treason and the Supreme Court later banned the party.
In the lead-up to Sunday's vote authorities have also hemmed in independent media and NGOs while former opposition members have fled the country in fear.
The US and EU have pulled funding and assistance for the vote, but Cambodia's staunch ally China has provided support.
- 'Sham election' -
The government says 19 other parties are contesting a democratic poll, but critics say the groups are obscure or newly created to give the poll a veneer of credibility.
Rights groups have slammed the election as a farce and opposition figures have called for a boycott to send a message to the ruling party.
But election authorities have vowed to take action against anyone who urges others not to vote, creating a climate of fear.
Cambodia's leaders have faced international criticism for helping cement what is virtually a one-party state but only limited travel and financial sanctions have been passed by western governments.
Sam Rainy, an opposition leader who lives in self-exile to avoid court cases he says are politically motivated, commended the US House of Representatives for passing the Cambodia Democracy Act earlier in the week.
The act proposes sanctions for members of Hun Sen's inner circle, a tight-knit group of police, army and other officials who have been key to maintaining his long grip on power.
"The timing comes just a few days before Hun Sen is crowned king in a sham election that will be easy to win after he cracked down on civil society, banned the CNRP, imprisoned its president and exiled its leaders, and destroyed the free press," Rainy said, urging the Senate to follow suit.