April 18, 2024

Cambodian leader Hun Sen is poised to win another one-sided election


One of the world’s longest-serving leaders is seeking to extend his iron-clad rule, running another tightly controlled election with no tangible competition as he prepares a potential succession of power for his son.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 70, has been in power since 1985 – only the leaders of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, both also authoritarian, have held office longer.

Voters in the Southeast Asian nation go to the polls on Sunday for the country’s seventh general election but observers predict few surprises.

After weeks of campaigning and a crackdown on opposition figures, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is almost unexpectedly performing.

“Like all dictators, Hun Sen will never give up his power,” said Cambodian politician Mu Sochua, who once served as the country’s Minister of Women and Veterans Affairs and has since fled abroad.

“The July 23 election is just a day for Hun Sen to impose (his choices) on the Cambodian people,” she said. “His ruthless policies and practices to eliminate opponents and political critics … to protect his power and transfer it to his eldest son during the late stage of his career.”

CNN has contacted the Prime Minister’s Office and CPP for comment.

Cambodia, a country of 16.5 million people, is famous for its magnificent Angkor temples but also for its turbulent recent history when the Khmer Rouge regime unleashed genocide on its own people, an event that left families with intergenerational trauma and poverty and corruption still deeply rooted.

A former Khmer Rouge commander who switched sides, Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades.

The country’s elections were initially competitive and the opposition was accepted. But in recent years Hun Sen has become increasingly autocratic – quashing dissent and imprisoning critics, forcing many to flee abroad.

He has also maintained increasingly close ties with China and has faced criticism from Western governments, which he has often accused of aiding Cambodia’s political opposition.

“The irony is that because Hun Sen has restricted the political space at home, removing domestic political challenges, he has drawn more criticism abroad,” said political analyst Bridget Welsh.

“The challenge he faces is that the election will not be seen as a democratic election – a lack of legitimacy. Without a competitive election and the media and a free space for civil society, Cambodia is not (regarded as) a democracy.”

The CPP cited the participation of 17 other small political parties to support its claim to be a multi-party democracy.

But this has been strongly refuted by rights groups and political observers who say that all opposition parties and meaningful figures have been neutralized, imprisoned or banned in Cambodia.

“Hun Sen is afraid to run on his record and would rather hold an empty exercise than risk a free and fair verdict on his autocratic rule,” Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, told CNN.

Political observers say this Cambodian election will set the stage for Hun Sen’s transfer of power to his son Hun Manet.

The eldest of three, Hun Manet, 45, is serving in the Cambodian army and has long been seen as a successor in waiting.

He grew up and was educated in Phnom Penh before joining the Cambodian army in 1995. That same year he entered the US Military Academy at West Point, earning a diploma four years later and becoming the first Cambodian ever to graduate from the prestigious school.

He also holds degrees in economics from New York University in 2002 and from the University of Bristol in 2008.

Hun Sen made it clear in a speech in 2021 that his son would be “future prime minister.”

This year Hun Manet will make his first political debut – standing for a parliamentary seat in Sunday’s election.

Welsh said Hun Manet “must earn his own legitimacy”.

“He has to come out of his father’s shadow and set his own leadership pattern,” she told CNN. “This will be challenging because Hun Sen will remain the dominant figure in Cambodian politics and it is unclear how much he will relinquish control.”

Hun Manet has a first-class foreign education and enjoys some popularity among younger Cambodians but his father will face tough challenges, said German political scientist Markus Karbaum.

“Hun Sen leaves a poisonous political legacy of corruption and nepotism,” Karbaum said.

“As long as he remains in good health, it will be very difficult for Hun Manet to step out of his shadow especially when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. “He will lose a huge amount of respect on the world stage if he gives the impression that he is just delivering his father’s messages – a politician without power and without a mandate will not be taken seriously.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen releases doves during a rally for the ruling Cambodian People's Party on July 1, 2023.

Cambodia’s political crackdown increased dramatically in the years following its 2013 elections when a coalition of opposition parties, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), took more than 40% of the vote.

Massive opposition rallies followed as they protested Hun Sen’s victory, further threatening his grasp on power.

The CNRP was banned by Cambodia’s supreme court in 2017 and many of its leaders were jailed or exiled.

This year’s elections followed a similar playbook.

The Candlelight Party, which emerged from what was left of the CNRP and was the only realistic challenge to Hun Sen and his ruling CPP, was banned earlier this year by Cambodia’s national election committee due to an issue with its paperwork.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Cambodian government officials stepped up harassment and arrested members of the opposition, rights groups noted.

“The Cambodian government has declared open season on (opposition members) using false and insulting criminal charges. They should stop targeting the opposition, immediately drop all baseless charges, and release all those who have been unjustly detained,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Sam Rainsy during a political rally in Phnom Penh in 2013.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile, took to Facebook to ask Cambodians to spoil their votes when they go to polling stations on Sunday.

The Cambodian government banned Rainsy from politics for 25 years because of his campaign and Hun Sen has warned that those spoiling their votes could be punished.

Two members of the Candlelight Party were also arrested this week for urging people to destroy their ballot papers, Reuters reported.

“This election is about keeping power within Hun Sen’s family and those who support his regime,” Rainsy told CNN.

“Cambodians, regardless of the party they support, are being cheated of their right to vote in a free and fair competition. Spoiled ballots will underscore the desire of ordinary Cambodians to participate in real elections,” he said.

With limited political options, many Cambodians have expressed apathy and fear.

One voter, a woman in her 50s living in the capital Phnom Penh who asked to be identified by her first name of Teang, told CNN she feared consequences if she did not vote for the ruling CPP.

“I’ve always assumed my vote is private but from the way (the election) played out – can you blame me for being paranoid?”

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