PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodians began voting Sunday, July 28, in elections expected to extend strongman premier Hun Sen’s 28-year rule in the face of alleged poll irregularities and the exclusion of the opposition chief.
The former Khmer Rouge fighter turned prime minister appears so confident of victory that he did not even bother to personally campaign for the parliamentary election.
Yet galvanised by the return from exile of their leader Sam Rainsy, his political foes have injected some rare competition into the race.
The opposition has also decried signs of voter fraud and warned the result will be meaningless without Rainsy’s participation.
The French-educated former banker returned to Cambodia on July 19 from self imposed exile after receiving a surprise royal pardon for criminal convictions which he contends were politically motivated.
But he is barred from running as a candidate since the authorities said it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.
“If the prime minister wants to keep his position he must be brave enough to confront me,” Rainsy told reporters on the eve of the vote.
“It’s very unfair and shows that the current prime minister is really a coward… The ruling party is nervous. That’s why they block me by all means,” Rainsy added.
“Any victory under such circumstances is worthless.”
Alleged poll irregularities
His Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) said it had uncovered irregularities such as tens of thousands of duplicated voter names that would allow some people to cast ballots twice.
“More people will vote for us,” Rainsy said. “But I suspect the ruling party, knowing this, will cheat more, will cheat like mad.”
Local poll monitor the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia alleged that up to 1.25 million people who are eligible to cast ballots are not on the voter lists.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has warned the vote will be anything but free and fair, highlighting alleged manipulation of voter rolls and campaigning by senior security forces officers for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The process has been manipulated to ensure victory for the ruling party,” said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.
“Citizens of genuine democracies would never accept at home the kind of grip the CPP has on the media and electoral machinery.”
While the government denies the allegations, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP the party was confident of another landslide.
“We expect to keep an absolute majority,” he said.
Hun Sen’s track record
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) and close at 3:00 pm, with about 9.6 million people registered to vote — more than one third of whom are below the age of 30.
Hun Sen oversaw Cambodia’s transformation from a nation devastated by the “Killing Fields” genocide era to become one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies.
The 60-year-old premier — who has vowed to rule until he is 74 — is regularly accused of trampling on human rights and quashing political dissent.
And while garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries.
For decades, Hun Sen’s simple message — that he and the CPP liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and ushered in decades of peaceful development — has been enough to guarantee support.
“He has led the nation to development and helped free the people from the death of the Pol Pot regime,” said CPP supporter Augn Nath.
Whiff of change
But there are tentative signs of change as social media allow the opposition to reach out to young, urban voters.
Thousands of opposition supporters have turned out in recent weeks for campaign rallies calling for a new chapter in Cambodia’s troubled history.
“One of Hun Sen’s most powerful tools, fear, is quickly disappearing as so many people — young and old alike — have poured into the streets calling for ‘change’ without any reservation,” said Jackson Cox, an analyst at the consultancy firm Woodmont International.
While the opposition hopes that Sunday’s election will be a step at least towards a shift in power, the strongman premier appears to have other plans.
His three US-educated sons have been handed top party or army positions and the youngest is running in Sunday’s election, fuelling speculation they are being groomed to replace him. – Rappler.com