On Sunday, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) declared a landslide victory in a one-sided election, paving the way for a historic leadership change and the end of one of the world’s longest-serving premiers’ tenure.
The election was basically a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP, a political juggernaut with a massive war fund, facing no viable opponent following a merciless, years-long crackdown that saw hundreds of its opponents go into exile.
According to the election committee, the CPP was leading in ballot counting late on Sunday, with an 84% turnout in a lopsided contest between the CPP and 17 relatively unknown parties.
“We won by a landslide… but we can’t count the seats yet,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan remarked.
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s self-styled strongman who has governed for 38 years, had dismissed Western concerns about the election’s credibility, anxious to avoid any impediment to his carefully calibrated transfer to his designated successor and eldest son, Hun Manet.
There was no timetable for the transition until Thursday, when Hun Sen, 70, indicated that Western-educated military commander Hun Manet “could be” prime minister next month.
If the National Assembly supports him, he will be eligible. Hun Manet gained a seat, according to party spokesperson Sok Eysan, in a “very clear” vote.
Hun Manet has given few media appearances and provided no hints about his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.
He received a master’s degree in economics from New York University and a PhD in economics from the University of Bristol, as well as attending the West Point military college, which helped him ascend through the ranks of Cambodia’s military to army chief and deputy armed forces commander.
Cambodia’s Hun Manet Scrutinized
Major western nations will be looking for clues as to whether Hun Manet will preserve his father’s autocratic regime or pursue greater liberalization and a more Western-style democracy.
Hun Manet dodged questions about becoming premier and whether he would rule differently than his father after casting his vote on Sunday.
“Please, no comments.” “I’ve just arrived to vote,” he explained in English, smiling.
Analysts predicted that the changeover would take place in the middle of the year, giving Hun Manet time to gain legitimacy among the public and political elite.
If he wants to keep Cambodia out of China’s clutches and repair ties with the US that have been frayed by his father’s iron fist style, this will be a crucial emphasis.
After preemptive strikes by authorities, including dismissing the CPP’s only major challenger, the Candlelight Party, on a procedural technicality, a CPP rout was never in doubt.
Former Khmer Rouge rebel Hun Sen has been accused by activists of publicly threatening opponents and encouraging violence, prompting Meta Platforms’ monitoring board to request that he be barred from Facebook. The government has denied that it is persecuting critics.
For inciting Cambodians to destroy votes in protest, the election committee barred self-exiled opposition frontman Sam Rainsy and 16 allies from voting for the next two decades.
Some did, uploading photographs of their ballots on social media, some with critical remarks about Hun Sen and labeling him a coward. Another ballot read, “U.N., please help.”
“The surprise of the day will be the number and percentage of ‘spoiled’ ballots,” Rainsy tweeted. “You can’t win an election with no opposition.”
Despite the CPP government’s monopoly on independent institutions, including the polling body, and activists’ charges of complicity in land grabs and environmental degradation, the party has consistently won the rural vote, indicating improvements in basic infrastructure.
Its selling pitch has been preserving peace and stability after decades of war, which has resulted in more than 7% average growth till 2019, producing jobs in garment manufacturing and construction.
Hun Sen said the record turnout demonstrated that his “extremist” opponents had failed to derail the election. He asked individuals who destroyed ballots not to escape the country and advised them to accept responsibility.
“We already know your faces,” he wrote on Telegram. “Don’t be afraid; if you come out and confess, legal action will be taken.”