PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodians looked set to extend Prime Minister Hun Sen's 23-year rule in elections Sunday, after a campaign overshadowed by a tense military standoff in a border dispute with Thailand.
The 15,000 polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0001 GMT) for eight hours of balloting, conducted under the eyes of 13,000 domestic and international observers.
Scores of people were waiting in line when voting began in the capital Phnom Penh.
"I came here at 6:00 am. I wanted to be first in line, but there were already many people in the queue," said 74-year-old Chum Bun.
"I hope to choose a good leader for my children," she added.
More than eight million people are registered to vote. Official results could take days to be announced, but the parties are expected to release their own tallies Sunday evening.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) says it wants to expand its majority in the 123-seat parliament so that it can form a single-party government.
The CPP currently has 73 seats, and under new rules party officials say they expect to cinch at least eight more.
The territorial feud with Thailand over a small patch of land near the ruins of an ancient Khmer temple has stoked nationalist sentiment here in the run-up to the vote.
Thousands of soldiers from both sides are facing off near the mountaintop Preah Vihear temple.
Hun Sen has flatly accused Thailand of defying international law and threatening regional peace by sending troops into the disputed zone.
With foreign ministers set to meet Monday in hopes of resolving the deal, the confrontation has pulled the nation's attention away from a campaign in which no one has emerged as a viable threat to the CPP.
"The Preah Vihear military standoff has attracted much of the attention of voters," said Thun Saray of the local election monitoring body Comfrel.
The conflict doesn't appear to have hurt Hun Sen's popularity.
Despite his reputation for trampling on human rights to secure his power, a booming economy has bolstered his standing in a country struggling to lift itself from the ranks of the world's poorest nations.
Once a Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter, Hun Sen abandoned the movement to stake his political future with the CPP, which was installed as the ruling party after Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and created a client state to stop border incursions.
Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985, and has steadily and ruthlessly cemented his grip on power, resorting to coups and systematic violence against any rivals who have threatened his reign.
In the current campaign, Hun Sen has been aided by his opponents' mistakes. His current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec party, has imploded under internal corruption scandals.
The leading opposition Sam Rainsy Party is expected to maintain its strength in the capital but has made few inroads into rural Cambodia, where most voters live.
Although the campaign has been less violent than past elections, Human Rights Watch warned that a history of violence remains a source of intimidation against the opposition.
The CPP's near monopoly on broadcast media has also undermined the opposition's efforts to woo voters, especially in rural parts of the country.