PHNOM PENH (Cambodia) — Early signs suggest that the ruling party of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is on track for victory in Sunday’s local elections. This was after large numbers voted for the first time since a 2018 general vote, widely criticized for being unfair.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was almost certain to win the lion’s part of the 11,622 seats in the Cambodian Council. These were being contested by 1,652 communes across the country. It has enjoyed a strong hold on power for many decades and enjoys the advantage of being able to control almost all local governments. Its opponents, who are less organized and have fewer resources, complain of intimidation or threats.

On Sunday night, the preliminary results were to be released by state media commune by commune. However, an aggregated official count will not be available until June 26.

The Fresh News website, which is closely associated with the government, quoted several governors as saying that unofficial results indicated that Hun Sen’s party won most of the council races in their respective provinces. News websites that reported polling station counts had previously put the ruling party on the front page.

Prach Chan, Chairman of the National Election Committee, stated that more than 77% of the 9.2 million registered voters turned out to vote.

He claimed that the election was free, fair and without intimidation or threats. This is contrary to U.N. Human Rights Office Geneva, which last week stated that there had been “patterns of threats, intimidation, and obstruction targeting opposition candidates.”

Hun Sen’s party was only to field candidates for all the communes. The Candlelight Party was its most serious rival, and was mobilizing supporters of the opposition.

Hun Sen, an authoritarian ruler of a state that claims to be democratic, has been in power for 37 years. His wife and he cast their ballots Sunday morning at Kandal, near Phnom Penh. Hun Sen stated that he will remain in office until 2028, and endorsed one his sons to succeed.

Local elections are held one year before the general election and are considered a test of parties’ strength.

The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was unexpectedly strong in the 2017 communal elections. This led Hun Sen’s government, as well as other independent media, to clamp down on the party. The Supreme Court dissolved the party on a charge treason. This was widely interpreted as being politically motivated.

Despite the Cambodian National Rescue Party not being on the ballot, Hun San’s party won the general election in 2015 and took all the seats at the National Assembly.

After judging that the 2018 election was neither free nor fair, several Western countries imposed sanctions against the government. The European Union took the harshest measures, withholding some preferential trading rights.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was disbanded by its members and also expelled from their political positions, is still banned. Most of its top leaders are now in exile.

Although the Candlelight Party tried to replace it, it was forced to organize in a hurry and came under heavy government pressure.

Sam Rainsy was Hun Sen’s main political rival and founded the original Candlelight Party in 1995. It later became the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Sam Rainsy was subject to legal harassment and fled France. The co-founder of Cambodia National Rescue Party, KemSokha, is currently being held on a treason charge.