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Cambodia holds lopsided election before historic transfer of power

2023-07-23T06:38:52Z

Cambodians heads to the ballot boxes on Sunday for an election without a main opposition party as Prime Minister Hun Sen clears the way for the succession of his son. David Doyle brings you what you need to know about Cambodia’s vote.

Cambodians voted on Sunday in a one-sided election certain to prolong the ruling party’s dominance of politics, clearing the path for a historic leadership transition and the end of the reign of one of the world’s longest-serving premiers.

The contest is effectively a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a political behemoth with a vast war chest, facing no viable opponent after a ruthless, years-long crackdown on its rivals.

Activists have dismissed the election as a sham, with CPP up against 17 mostly obscure parties, none of which won seats in the last election, in 2018.

Long queues formed at polling stations through the morning. By noon (0500 GMT), 6.2 million of the 9.7 million eligible voters had cast ballots, according to National Election Committee official Dim Sovannarom.

Former Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen, 70, has led Cambodia for 38 years and has brushed off Western concern about the election’s credibility, determined to prevent any obstacle in his carefully calibrated transition to his anointed successor and eldest son, Hun Manet.

No timeframe had been given for the handover until Thursday, when Hun Sen signalled his son “could be” prime minister next month, depending on “whether Hun Manet will be able to do it or not”. He needs to win a National Assembly seat to become prime minister, which is likely.

Hun Manet, 45, dressed in a green safari shirt, smiled and posed for selfies with supporters after voting in the capital Phnom Penh before a throng of media.

He ducked questions on the prospect of becoming premier and whether he would rule differently from his father. “No comment please, no comment please. I’ve just come to vote,” he said in English, smiling.

Analysts had expected the transition to come mid-term, giving time for Hun Manet to earn legitimacy with the public and political elite.

“Transferring power while he is still physically and mentally well allows Hun Sen to strongly protect his son from any internal challenges,” said Gordon Conochie, adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University and author of a new book on Cambodia’s democracy.

“As long as Hun Sen is around, nobody will move against Hun Manet.”

Hun Manet has given few media interviews and no clues over his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.

He earned a master’s degree at New York University and a doctorate at the University of Bristol, both in economics, and attended the West Point military academy, helping him rise through the ranks of Cambodia’s military to army chief and deputy armed forces commander.

Major powers will be watching closely for signs of whether Hun Manet will maintain the authoritarian status quo of his father or pursue greater liberalisation and a more Western style of democracy.

A key focus will be if he seeks to steer Cambodia out of the orbit of China and patch up ties with the United States that have perennially been strained by his father’s iron-fisted approach.

Hun Manet received a rock-star reception at a big rally on Friday, where he promised a vote for the CPP was for a bright future” and warned of unspecified “extremist” attempts to “destroy the election”.

The rhetoric echoes that of Hun Sen in his vitriol against opponents and pre-emptive strikes since May that have included disqualifying the CPP’s only meaningful rival, the Candlelight Party, over a paperwork technicality.

Authorities also banned self-exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy and 16 allies from voting and contesting elections for two decades for urging Cambodians to destroy their ballots.

Some did that on Sunday, posting pictures on social media of spoiled ballots, some with writing that disparaged Hun Sen, calling him a coward. Pro-government Freshnews said authorities were investigating, while other media reported one person was arrested for taking a ballot home.

Hun Sen cast his vote just outside the capital, kissing his ballot paper before posting it and smiling for cameras with an ink-stained finger.

His CPP’s selling point has been its rural development and ensuring peace and stability after decades of war, which helped spur average growth of more than 7% until 2019, creating jobs in garment manufacturing and construction.

“I don’t really need more from the new leader,” voter Nin Sinath, 58, said on Hun Sen’s succession. “I have what I want now, we have peace and prosperity for the people already.”

Related Galleries:

Hun Manet, son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaks during the final Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) election campaign for the upcoming general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023. REUTERS/Cindy Liu

People attend the final Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) election campaign for the upcoming general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023. REUTERS/Cindy Liu

Hun Manet, son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, attends the final Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) election campaign for the upcoming general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
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