PHNOM PENH (AP) — Cambodia is holding a one-sided election Sunday that is sure to prolong the ruling party’s political dominance, clearing the way for a historic leadership transition and the end of the reign of one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers.
The contest is effectively a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a political giant with a huge war chest, facing no viable opponent after years of ruthless crackdown on its rivals.
Former Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen, 70, has ruled Cambodia for 38 years and shrugged off Western concerns about the credibility of the election, determined to avoid any obstacles in his carefully calibrated transition to anoint his eldest son, Hun Manet, as his successor.
No deadline for the handover had been given until Thursday, when Hun Sen said his son “could be” prime minister in three to four weeks, depending “whether Hun Manet will be able to do it or not.”
Hun Manet, 45, needs to win a seat in the National Assembly to become prime minister, which he is expected to do in Sunday’s general election. Analysts expected the transition to occur mid-term, giving Hun Manet time to gain legitimacy with the public and political elite.
“Transferring power while he is still physically and mentally well allows Hun Sen to strongly shield his son from any internal challenge,” said Gordon Conochie, a research associate at La Trobe University and author of a new book on democracy in Cambodia.
“The reality is that as long as Hun Sen is around, no one will move against Hun Manet.”
Hun Manet has given few interviews to the media and no clues about his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.
He earned a master’s degree from New York University and a Ph.D. from Bristol University, both in economics, and attended West Point Military Academy, which helped him rise through the ranks of the Cambodian army to chief of the army and deputy commander of the armed forces.
‘Peace Not War’
Major powers will be watching for signs of whether Hun Manet will stick with his father’s authoritarian status quo or pursue further liberalization and a more Western style of democracy.
A key focus will be whether he seeks to move Cambodia out of China’s orbit and mend ties with the United States that have always been strained by his father’s iron-fisted approach.
Hun Manet declared “Victory Day” on Friday at an election rally in front of thousands of supporters, who braved the rain to give him rock star treatment, chanting his name and climbing for selfies and kisses.
He promised that voting for the CPP was “for a bright and prosperous future” and warned of unspecified “extremist” attempts to “destroy the elections”.
The rhetoric echoes that of Hun Sen in his vitriol against opponents and pre-emptive strikes since May that have included the disqualification of the CPP’s only significant rival, the Candlelight Party, over a paperwork technicality.
Authorities also banned self-exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy and 16 allies from voting and running in elections for two decades for urging Cambodians to destroy their ballots.
There are 17 other mostly obscure parties running, none of which won seats in the last election, in 2018.
The CPP’s selling point has been its rural development and ensuring peace and stability after decades of war, which has helped fuel average growth of more than 7% through 2019, creating jobs in garment and construction.
“I want the next leader to ensure peace, not war,” said In Som, an 83-year-old Phnom Penh resident. “We do not want the country to enter more into war.”
Conochie said a landslide for the CPP would not mean voters would fully support the ruling party.
“They see no other option,” he said. “There are many Cambodians who remain committed to promoting democracy and human rights. This may not be their choice, but they won’t give up.”
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