PHNOM PENH: Cambodia voted on Sunday in an election set to extend strongman premier Hun Sen’s 33 years in power after the only credible opposition was dissolved, effectively turning the country into a one-party state.
Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985, has cracked down on dissent in the run-up to the poll, squeezing out civil society, independent media and his political opponents.
Western governments have pulled their assistance from the poll citing its lack of credibility, with rights groups and the opposition describing it as knockout blow to the democratic process.
Nineteen small – or hitherto unknown – parties are competing against Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the absence of the main opposition.
But with the result a foregone conclusion, the focus will be on turnout in what has become a plebiscite on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s popularity.
The opposition, whose leaders are in jail, underground or in self-exile, has urged a “clean-finger” boycott as the only safe form of protest.
But lines stretched out of many polling stations early on Sunday, as voters showed up at schools and pagodas to cast ballots.
“I came to vote because I want happiness, development and peace for the country,” said Im Chanthan, 54, casting a ballot in the same station as Hun Sen in Kandal province, just outside the capital.
The strongman leader smiled as he and his wife Bun Rany arrived to cast ballots, holding up an ink-stained finger for the bank of photographers.
Hun Sen, 65, a one-time Khmer Rouge commander who defected as the hardline regime began to crumble, says stability and economic growth are gifts of his years in power – a message that resonates with his base.
The ruling CPP has won every election since 1998.
‘Fist of a dictator’
More than eight million voters are registered for the sixth general election since the United Nations first sponsored polls in 1993.
At the time the country was edging out from decades of war, include the evisceration of the Khmer Rouge years (1975-79) that killed a quarter of the population.
Hun Sen broke from the ultra-Maoist regime and was installed at only 32 years old as leader during the Vietnamese occupation of the 1980s.
But dissatisfaction with corruption among a growing youth population, with little memory of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era and modern aspirations, put the ruling party’s longevity in doubt.
Their votes helped the rival Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to rack up more than 44 percent of the 2013 vote and carved out a similar share in local elections last year.
“The CNRP offered a promise of responsive and non-corrupt governance, and people wanted to give them a chance,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
But Hun Sen snuffed out the looming electoral threat, accusing the CNRP of being involved in a treasonous plot to topple the government and arresting leader Kem Sokha.
“This is a story of how democratic dreams die under the fist of a dictator,” Robertson added.
The Supreme Court dissolved the party in November 2017, clearing the way for a CPP whitewash on Sunday.
Some voters have expressed resignation over Hun Sen’s poll victory, but a climate of fear driven through by local level ruling party members has led few to speak out publicly.
Power and patronage
Hun Sen has maintained a tight grip on the country through a mix of political and family alliances in the police, military, and media.
With control over vast parts of the state, he has also placed his sons in key positions in what analysts see as an attempt to create a dynasty.
The strongman portrays himself as a saviour of the country but glosses over his early membership in the Khmer Rouge.
The United States and the European Union declined to send monitors but Cambodia’s ally China has provided support.
The CNRP appealed to Cambodians in a statement on Sunday to not vote in the “sham election that has no support and is not recognised by the international community.”
Authorities have vowed to take action against anyone who urges others to steer clear of the ballot box, although they insist voting is not compulsory.
Cambodia’s leaders have faced international criticism but only limited travel and financial sanctions have been imposed by western governments in response to actions taken against the opposition.
The US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act last week, proposing sanctions against members of Hun Sen’s inner circle.