Cambodia is holding lopsided elections ahead of a historic transition of power

  • The West has dismissed the elections as a sham
  • CPP is running virtually unopposed
  • Focus on when the prime minister will make way for the son to take over
  • Hun Manet evades questions of succession
  • The government expected to be formed in August

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia’s one-sided election kicked off on Sunday that is certain to extend the ruling party’s dominance of politics, paving the way for a historic leadership transition and the end of one of the world’s longest serving prime ministers.

The competition is really a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a political titan with big breasts, facing no viable opponent after years of a brutal crackdown on his rivals.

Former Khmer Rouge fighter Hun Sen, 70, led Cambodia for 38 years and ignored Western concerns about the election’s credibility, deciding to block any snag in his carefully orchestrated transition to his designated successor and eldest son, Hun Maneh.

No delivery timeframe was set until Thursday, when Hun Sen indicated that his son “could be” prime minister in three or four weeks, depending on “whether or not Hun Maneh is able to do it.” He needs to win a seat in the National Assembly to become prime minister, which is likely.

Hun Manet, who was wearing a green safari shirt, smiled and posed for selfies with supporters after casting his vote in the capital, Phnom Penh, in front of a crowd of media. He declined to comment on the possibility of becoming prime minister and said he was exercising his right to vote.

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Analysts expected the transition period to come in the middle of the term, giving time for the 45-year-old Hun Manet to gain legitimacy with the public and political elite.

“Devolving power while still healthy, physically and mentally, allows Hun Sen to aggressively protect his son from any internal challenges,” said Gordon Konucci, assistant research fellow at La Trobe University and author of a new book on democracy in Cambodia.

“As long as Hun Sen is around, no one will move against Hun Mane.”

Hun Manet gave few media interviews and had no clues about his vision of Cambodia and its 16 million people.

He earned a master’s degree from New York University and a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol, both in economics, and attended West Point Military Academy, which helped him rise through Cambodia’s military ranks to chief of the army and deputy commander of the armed forces.

‘Peace not war’

The major powers will be watching closely for signs of whether Hun Manet will maintain his father’s authoritarian status quo or seek greater liberalization and a more Western style of democracy.

The main focus will be on whether he seeks to wean Cambodia out of China’s orbit and repair relations with the United States that have always been strained by his father’s iron-fisted approach.

Hun Manet received a rock star reception at a rally on Friday, where he promised that voting for the CPP would be “for a bright and prosperous future” and warned of unspecified “extremists” attempts to “ruin the election”.

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This rhetoric echoes Hun Sen’s rhetoric against opponents and pre-emptive strikes since May which included the exclusion of the CPP’s only rival, the Candlelight Party, due to paperwork technicalities.

Authorities have also banned exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and 16 of his allies from voting and running for two decades for urging Cambodians to destroy their ballots.

Hun Sen cast his ballot in Kandal province, a few hours outside the capital, kissing his ballot paper before it was posted and posing for pictures, smiling with an ink-smeared finger.

There are 17 other mostly obscure parties, none of which won seats in the last election in 2018.

CPP’s selling point has been rural development and ensuring peace and stability after decades of war, helping to spur average growth of more than 7% through 2019, and job creation in the garment and construction industries.

“I want the next leader to guarantee peace, not war,” said an 83-year-old resident of Phnom Penh in Somme.

Konochi said the CPP’s landslide did not mean that the electorate was fully behind the ruling party.

“They don’t see any other option,” he said. “There are many Cambodians who remain committed to promoting democracy and human rights. This may not be their election but they will not give up.”

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thule) Additional reporting by Shanta Lash. Additional writing and reporting by Martin Beatty; Editing by Robert Purcell and William Mallard

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