PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cast his ballot 10 minutes after polls opened at 7 a.m. Sunday in an election in which his party is all but assured of a landslide victory thanks to the effective suppression and intimidation of any genuine opposition that critics say has played a joke on democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
The European Union, the United States and other Western countries refused to send observers, saying the election did not have the conditions to be considered free and fair. That left only international officials from Russia, China and Guinea-Bissau to watch Hun Sun vote at a polling station in his home district outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
He held his ballot high for all to see, before depositing it in the silver metal box and leaving the station, pausing to take selfies and shake hands with supporters outside.
Asia’s longest-serving leader, Hun Sen has steadily cemented his power through his heavy-handed tactics over the past 38 years. But, at 70, he has suggested handing over the premiership in the next five-year term to his eldest son, Hun Manet, possibly as early as the first month after the election.
Hun Manet, 45, holds a bachelor’s degree from the US Military Academy at West Point as well as a master’s degree from NYU and a doctorate. from the University of Bristol in Great Britain. He is currently head of the Cambodian army.
Despite his Western upbringing, however, observers do not expect any immediate changes in politics from that of his father, who has gradually moved Cambodia closer to China in recent years.
“I don’t think anyone expects Hun Sen to disappear once Hun Manet is prime minister,” said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a Cambodia expert at Sweden’s Lund University. “I think they’ll probably work closely together and I don’t think there’s a big difference in their political outlook, including foreign policy.”
Hun Manet is just one part of what is expected to be a wider generational shift, with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party planning to install young leaders in most ministerial posts.
“It’s going to be the big change of the guard, that’s what I’m watching,” Norén-Nilsson said. “It’s all about transition, it all depends on who’s going to come in and what positions they’re in.”
In the post where Hun Sen voted, voter Nan Sy, a former lawmaker himself a member of a small royalist party, said the main issue for him was stability.
“Without stability we can’t talk about education, we can’t talk about development,” the 59-year-old said without saying who he voted for.
Hun Sen had been a mid-ranking commander in the radical communist Khmer Rouge responsible for the genocide in the 1970s before defecting to Vietnam. When Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, he quickly became a senior figure in Hanoi’s new Cambodian government.
A shrewd and sometimes ruthless politician, Hun Sen maintained power as an autocrat within a nominally democratic framework.
His party’s grip on power weakened in the 2013 elections, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party won 44% of the popular vote to the CPP’s 48%. Hun Sen answered the wake-up call by suing opposition leaders, mostly through sympathetic courts, which eventually dissolved the party after the 2017 local elections when it performed well again.
Ahead of Sunday’s election, the Candlelight Party, the unofficial successor to the CNRP and the only other candidate capable of mounting a credible challenge, was technically barred from contesting the polls by the National Electoral Committee.
While virtually securing another landslide victory for Hun Sen and his party, the methods drew widespread criticism from rights groups.
Human Rights Watch said the “election bears little resemblance to a genuine democratic process”, while the Asian Network for Free Elections, an umbrella organization of nearly 20 regional NGOs, said the National Election Commission showed a “clear bias” towards the CPP in banning the candlelight party.
“Such disqualification further exacerbates the unbalanced and unfair political environment, leaving little room for opposition voices to compete on equal footing with the ruling party,” the group said in a joint statement.
“Furthermore, the shrinking space for civil society and the deliberate targeting of human rights defenders and activists raise serious concerns. The restriction of civic space undermines the active participation of civil society in the electoral process without fear of reprisals.
After the “very unpopular” manner in which the opposition was neutralized in 2018, this time around there are few signs of widespread popular discontent, Norén-Nilsson said, as Hun Sen and the CPP have done a very effective job over the past five years in making many Cambodians realize that they are part of a new national project.
The strategy involved cautious messaging, with sweeping slogans like “small country, big heart”, and little discussion of politics, she said.
“It’s really amazing how the RPC has managed to get acceptance at least what we’re seeing now,” she said. “If before people thought the glass was half empty, now it’s half full, so you focus more on what you have than what you don’t have.”
With the Candlelight Party out of the race, the biggest beneficiary of any anti-CPP vote is likely to be FUNCINPEC, a royalist party whose name is an unwieldy French acronym for the National Front for an Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia.
Founded in 1981 by Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, the party defeated the CPP in UN-organized elections in 1993, but his son, Norodom Ranariddh, ended up having to accept a post as co-prime minister with Hun Sen.
The party’s current chairman, Norodom Chakravuth, who returned from France to take control of the party just over a year ago after the death of his father Norodom Ranariddh, told The Associated Press he was aiming more for the 2028 election but hopes this time to eventually win a seat or two.