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Cambodians prepped for inevitable election results

Hun Sen’s one-sided re-election will ensure transfer of power
Supporters of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) participate in a campaign rally ahead of the upcoming election in Phnom Penh on July 1, 2023. Cambodians go to the polls on July 23

Supporters of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) participate in a campaign rally ahead of the upcoming election in Phnom Penh on July 1, 2023. Cambodians go to the polls on July 23. (Photo: AFP)

Published: July 17, 2023 05:49 AM GMT
Updated: July 17, 2023 07:20 AM GMT

About 9.7 million Cambodians go to the polls on July 23 for a one-sided election, which will secure Prime Minister Hun Sen’s absolute authority and an endorsement for a widely-anticipated transfer of power to his eldest son Hun Manet.

Only his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) — which has ruled since a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 — is capable of winning a contest bereft of competition since the disqualification of the main opposition party in May, amid a six-year crackdown on dissent.

A refusal by the National Election Committee (NEC) to endorse the election registration papers from the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP) has also raised the prospect of the CPP repeating its performance in 2018, when it won all 125 seats in the National Assembly.

Their absence has turned campaigning into an an orderly, dour affair with the CPP showing-off its strength through the streets of Phnom Penh, backed by four-wheel drives and bellowing supporters armed with mega-phones. The performance of the remaining parties has been meek.

It was a far cry from elections in 2013 when the now outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) — forerunner of the CLP — and tens of thousands of colorful supporters offered a loud and robust challenge to ruling elites and went very close to winning the popular vote.

Opinion polls are not published in this country and an independent media capable of offering unfettered, objective viewpoints has diminished sharply since the closure of Voice of Democracy on Hun Sen’s orders on Feb 12.

That upset Western countries, United Nations special rapporteurs and human rights activists which also have complained bitterly over the 2019 banning of the CNRP, disqualification of the CLP and a long list of dissidents who have faced the courts, been jailed or fled abroad in recent years.

That list includes former CNRP chief Kem Sokha, currently serving a 27-year sentence for treason, activist and editor of the Khmer Bible Theary Seng who has been jailed for six years, and the trade union leader Chhim Sithar, who is serving a two year sentence for incitement.

On July 12, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published its judgement in regards to Theary Seng finding she had been “arbitrarily detained in violation of international law” and “demanded her immediate and unconditional release.”

However, Hun Sen has ruled out any pardon for Theary Seng, saying: “If any individual receives intervention from foreigners, that individual will never be tolerated or pardoned, for instance, Seng Theary.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed the United States, Australia, Britain, France and Germany, in criticizing the NEC’s disqualification of the CLP.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric added: “It is vital that civic space be open, for human rights defenders to be protected, and for civil society to play a wider role in society, all of which remain critical in preserving Cambodia’s substantial development gains and consolidation of peace.”

The CPP has defended its democratic credentials arguing it will contest the ballot against 17 political parties but as Guterres noted the CLP — which picked-up about 22 percent of the overall vote at last year’s commune election — was thesole credible challenger.

Of those 17 political parties, seven are new with little or no track record. Of the remainder, nearly all struggled to win just one percent of the popular vote in 2018. The one possible exception is the royal Funcinpec party which once governed this country.

Under the fresh leadership of Prince Norodom Chakravuth the party is talking-up its chances.

“I’ve noticed strong support from the people for this election, which is completely different from the previous two elections,” Funcinpec spokesman Nhoeun Raden recently told the pro-government Khmer Times.

“We expect to win the election, or at least win half of the total National Assembly’s seats,” he said.

However its track record would suggest otherwise, Funcinpec has not won a seat at the last two elections and could onlymuster about 5.8 percent of the overall vote in 2018.

“It’s a fait accompli. None of the other political parties, with the possible exception of Funcinpec, is capable of winning a seat,” one Western analyst, who declined to be named, told UCA News. “In all probability this country will still be a one-party-state after this election.”

However, some analysts said this election remains significant and will signal a generational handover of power with Hun Sen expected to deliver his job as prime minister to Hun Manet. Senior ministers are also expected to hand their portfolios to their sons.

Hun Sen has not said exactly when he will step aside but speculation has intensified that a transfer of power will be sooner rather than later. The National Assembly is scheduled to convene on August 28 and a new government will be sworn in the following day.

“After that, change is probable,” the Western analyst said.

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