PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Votes began to be counted Sunday in Cambodia’s general election, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party scored a landslide victory thanks to the effective suppression and intimidation of any meaningful opposition. Critics say the process has created a travesty of democracy in the Southeast Asian country.
The European Union, the United States and other Western countries have refused to send observers, saying the elections lack the conditions to make them free and fair. That left international officials from Russia, China and Guinea-Bissau to watch Hun Son vote shortly after the polls opened at 7 am on Sunday in his district outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
He bellowed for all to see, before putting him into the silver metal box and leaving the station, pausing to take selfies and shake hands with supporters outside.
Hun Sen, the longest-serving commander in Asia, has steadily consolidated his power through his aggressive tactics over the past 38 years. but, at the age of seventy, he suggested that he hand over the premiership during the next five-year term to his eldest son, Hon Manet, perhaps as early as the first month after the election.
Hon Manet, 45, holds a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point as well as a master’s from New York University and a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol in the UK. He is currently the head of Cambodia’s army.
Despite his Western education, observers do not expect any immediate policy shifts from that of his father, who has steadily brought Cambodia closer to China in recent years.
“I don’t think anyone expects Hun Sen to kind of disappear once Hun Maneh becomes prime minister,” said Astrid Noreen-Nielson, an expert on Cambodia at Sweden’s Lund University. “I think they will probably work very closely together and I don’t think there is much difference in their political outlook, including foreign policy.”
Hun Maneh is just part of what is expected to be a broader generational change, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) plans to install younger leaders in most cabinet posts.
“It’s going to be such a big changing of the guard, that’s what I’m watching,” said Noreen-Nelson. “It’s all about the transition, it’s all about who’s coming and what positions they find themselves in.”
At the station where Hun Sen cast his vote, voter Nan Si, a former lawmaker from a smaller royalist party, said the main issue for him was stability.
“Without stability, we can’t talk about education, and we can’t talk about development,” the 59-year-old said, without saying who voted.
There were few reports of any protests against the election, but General Khieu Sovic, a spokesman for the Cambodian National Police, said 27 people had been sought over allegations that they invited voters to spoil their votes in a Telegram chat channel. He said two were arrested at polling stations as well.
Hun Sen was a mid-level leader in the radical communist Khmer Rouge responsible for the genocide in the 1970s before he defected to Vietnam. When Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he quickly became a leading member of the new Cambodian government installed by Hanoi.
A cunning and sometimes ruthless politician, Hun Sen maintained his power as an autocrat within a nominally democratic framework.
His party’s hold on power faltered in the 2013 elections, as the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party won 44% of the popular vote to the Cambodian People’s Party’s 48%. Hun Sen responded to the wake-up call by going after opposition leaders, primarily through sympathetic courts, which eventually dissolved the party after local elections in 2017 when it again performed well.
Ahead of Sunday’s election, the National Election Commission banned the Candlemas Party, the unofficial successor to the CNRP and the only other candidate capable of mounting a credible challenge, on technical grounds from running.
While these methods virtually guarantee another landslide victory for Hun Sen and his party, they have drawn widespread criticism from rights groups.
“The elections bear little resemblance to an actual democratic process,” Human Rights Watch said, while the Asian Network for Free Elections, an umbrella organization of nearly 20 regional NGOs, said the NEC showed “clear bias” towards the CPP in banning the Candlelight Party.
“This disqualification further exacerbates the unbalanced and unjust political environment, leaving little room for opposition voices to compete on equal terms with the ruling party,” the group said in a joint statement.
“Moreover, the shrinking space for civil society and the deliberate targeting of human rights defenders and activists is seriously disturbing. The narrowing of civic space undermines the active participation of civil society in the electoral process without fear of reprisal.”
Norn-Nelson said that after the “wildly unpopular” way the opposition was co-opted in 2018, this time there is little sign of widespread public discontent, because Hun Sen and the CPP have done a very effective job over the past five years of building a sense among many Cambodians that they are part of a new national project.
She said the strategy involved sending cautious messages, with sweeping slogans like “small country, big heart,” and little talk of politics.
“It’s really amazing how the CPP has managed to gain acceptance at least for what we’re seeing now,” she said. “If before people thought the glass was half empty, now it is half full, so you focus more on what you have than what you have.”
With the Candlelight Party out of the race, FUNCINPEC will likely be the biggest beneficiary of any vote against the CPP, a monarchist party whose name is an unwieldy French acronym for the National Front for Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia.
Founded in 1981 by Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, the party defeated the CPP in elections held by the United Nations in 1993, but his son, Norodom Ranariddh, ended up agreeing to a joint premiership with Hun Sen.
The party’s president today, Norodom Chakravoth, who returned from France to take over the party presidency just over a year ago after the death of his father, Norodom Ranariddh, told The Associated Press that his sights are more on the 2028 election, but this time he hopes to win a seat or two.
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