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Cambodian heir apparent hails poll victory

Hun Manet posted a triumphant message across multiple social media platforms, defying outside criticism
Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, seen during a ceremony to deploy 290 Chinese military trucks at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on June 18, 2020

Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, seen during a ceremony to deploy 290 Chinese military trucks at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on June 18, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: July 25, 2023 04:55 AM GMT
Updated: July 25, 2023 05:07 AM GMT

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's heir apparent insisted Monday on the legitimacy of elections his party won against no meaningful opposition, defying international criticism that the polls were neither free nor fair.

Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for nearly 40 years -- stifling all real opposition, freedom of speech and democratic reform -- but has indicated recently that he will soon hand power to his eldest son Hun Manet.

The United States on Monday condemned the polls, in which the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is predicted to win all but five of 125 parliamentary seats in the lower house.

But Hun Manet posted a triumphant message across multiple social media platforms hailing his party's victory.

"The Cambodian people have clearly expressed their wills through votes," he wrote.

"An overwhelming number have expressed support for the Cambodian People's Party."

He thanked Cambodians "for choosing to vote, and especially for all the love and confidence in the CPP".

Official results will not be available for weeks, although the CPP claimed late Sunday to have won in a "landslide".

The small government-aligned royalist FUNCINPEC party, headed by Prince Norodom Chakravuth, is expected to take five seats -- giving the new parliament a patina of diversity after the CPP won every seat in the last election.

The disqualification on a technicality of the only viable opposition force, the Candlelight Party, meant there was no realistic outcome other than a big CPP win.

The United States said the elections were "neither free nor fair", pointing to "a pattern of threats and harassment against the political opposition, media, and civil society".

"These actions denied the Cambodian people a voice and a choice in determining the future of their country," US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement on Monday.

He said Washington was preparing to impose visa restrictions on some individuals for undermining democracy, and halting some aid programmes.

The European Union said it regretted that the Candlelight Party was excluded and called for detained opposition figures to be released.

Former colonial power France said the Candlelight Party's absence "undermined the pluralist nature of the ballot".

China praise 

Hun Sen has played off Washington's growing fears of Beijing in recent years, collecting huge sums in aid and Chinese foreign investment -- without any unwelcome demands for democratic reform.

On Monday the Chinese foreign ministry congratulated Hun Sen on his win in "successful elections" and said it looked forward to strengthening already close ties.

Cambodia's foreign ministry said turnout was 84.6 percent, with 8.2 million votes cast, calling this a reflection of the country's "democratic maturity".

With the opposition virtually silenced, voters had few choices in the polling station -- although intentionally invalidating their ballot papers would have been one way to show dissatisfaction.

Authorities are investigating 27 people for inciting voters to spoil their ballots on polling day, interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told AFP.

Election officials also banned exiled opposition figurehead and Hun Sen's longtime foe Sam Rainsy from running for office for 25 years for urging people to void their ballots.

During the counting, AFP reporters witnessed a number of spoiled ballots -- later downplayed by the CPP -- but there was little chance of protests in a country entirely under Hun Sen's thumb.

On Monday, Phnom Penh was calm, with few people on the streets.

"The situation is normal, calm and good," 42-year-old newsstand vendor Khon Sokna told AFP.

Behind her, a number of English and Khmer-language newspapers flapped from a string, celebrating Hun Sen's victory at the polls.

"There is no problem at all," she said.

'Eased' into position 

In a country that was torn apart by genocide and war within living memory, many were grateful for the continuity Hun Sen represents, and his intention of passing on power to his son.

"Cambodia's new leader will be eased into the position, with the expectation that he will grow into the role," Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia", told AFP.

But Hun Manet lacks his father's connections or his political acuity, Strangio said, leaving him little room to maneuver.

Ultimately Hun Sen would remain in charge, with little chance of substantial change, political analyst Virak Ou told AFP.

"I think his father will allow him to do some things that will not disrupt the patronage system," he said.

Shop owner Lon Mon, 52, voiced regret at Hun Sen's potential retirement.

"But it is also good that his son will continue. We will support him," he said.

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