Bangkok, Jul 23 (EFE).- Cambodia’s ruling party declared a landslide victory in Sunday’s general election, in which strongman Hun Sen ran virtually unopposed.
The win for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) paves the way for Hun Sen, who has ruled the Southeast Asian nation with an iron fist since 1985, to hand over power to his eldest son, army commander Hun Manet.
“It is clear that the CPP is leading (the vote count) and will win 100 percent for sure. We can not yet announce a number (of seats won), but it is clear that the CPP won by landslide,” said the party spokesman, Sok Eysan, to CamboJA News.
Sunday’s election saw a high turnout of 84 percent.
During a press conference after polling centers closed, the country’s Electoral Committee admitted that the CPP was “leading” the count. Preliminary results were expected later on Sunday night.
In the lead-up to the vote, the 70-year-old prime minister and his government had eliminated all credible opposition, changed electoral laws, limited public access to independent information and silenced dissent, ensuring what was expected to be yet another victory for the leader – this time with succession on the horizon.
Hun Sen on Friday revealed that his 45-year-old son Hun Manet could take over his leadership in a matter of weeks following Sunday’s poll, in which around 9.7 million eligible voters were called to submit their ballots.
Hun Sen cast his vote early in his southeastern home province of Kandal at about 7.15 am, while at 8 am Hun Manet voted at a school in capital Phnom Penh.
A number of ballots could be declared invalid after photos were posted to social media sites showing crossed-out voting papers, although these could not be independently verified.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
Before it had even started, Sunday’s vote had been expected to further entrench Hun Sen’s rule, with the main opposition party barred from running due to an administrative technicality, and with 17 other parties lacking the size and structure to pose a threat.
It was reminiscent of the last general election in 2018, when the CPP swept all 125 seats in parliament after critical media outlets were shut down and the popular main opposition party was dissolved by politically-controlled courts.
In addition, a recent change to an electoral law barring those who did not vote from running as a candidate in future elections affected any opponents who had been considering an election boycott, and opposition politicians in exile.
Access to information was also further impeded. In February, authorities shut down independent news outlet Voice of Democracy, and earlier this month, the government issued a letter to ISP providers to block the domains of Komnotra, a public database run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and news outlets Cambodia Daily Khmer and Radio Free Asia, both headquartered overseas.
“Having almost completely eliminated the free press inside Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government is now targeting media operating from abroad in order to perfect its information lockdown,” said Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani in a statement on Friday.
Other organizations also denounced the Cambodian government’s harassment and jailing of activists and dissidents.
All moves looked to be aimed at clearing the path for an uncontested victory that in turn would pave the way for a power transition.
This year, former Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen has openly threatened opposition members and supporters with violence, while in recent years he has projected himself as the gatekeeper of stability and peace, warning citizens that the country could descend into civil war if the status quo is not maintained.
He has increasingly positioned his four-star general son as his successor, but with no set timeline.
Hun Manet, who temporarily parked his military chief duties to appear at the top of the CPP list on Sunday, has been carving out a public image of himself as a statesman closely linked to the legacy of his father.
However, in a surprise revelation, Hun Sen told China’s Phoenix TV in an interview that aired Friday that “in three or four weeks, Hun Manet can become the prime minister. It depends on whether Hun Manet will be able to do it or not,” according to a transcription by local media.
To become prime minister, Hun Manet needs to win a National Assembly seat – a likely outcome.
Human Rights Watch warned at the beginning of the month that “numerous and significant irregularities” in last year’s local elections, including “serious allegations of vote tampering, fraud, and improper counting of votes” raised concerns for Sunday’s vote.
A joint statement also issued Saturday by 17 civil society NGOs expressed their “profound concern” for the polls, widely seen as a sham.
“We firmly believe that this election is poised to lack genuineness and meaningful electoral competitiveness, raising serious doubts about its adherence to democratic principles and international election standards,” it said.
It also warned that the election “is likely to fall short of meeting the criteria for credible elections, including transparency, inclusion and accountability of election stakeholders.”
In a letter Thursday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights urged the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand to “unequivocally denounce the 2023 electoral exercise in Cambodia as undemocratic.”
“Any elections held under the present circumstances cannot possibly be free and fair, nor should any government created from such elections be recognized as legitimate by the international community,” it said. EFE