Hun Manet (center), son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, attends the final Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) election campaign for the general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023. (Reuters/Cindy Liu)
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Cambodia holds a one-sided election on Sunday that is certain to prolong the ruling party’s dominance of politics, clearing the path for a historic leadership transition and the end of the reign of one of the world’s longest-serving premiers.
The contest is effectively a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a political behemoth with a vast war chest, facing no viable opponent after a ruthless, years-long crackdown on its rivals.
Former Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen, 70, has led Cambodia for 38 years and has brushed off Western concern about the election’s credibility, determined to prevent any obstacle in his carefully calibrated transition to anoint his eldest son, Hun Manet, successor.
No timeframe had been given for the handover until Thursday, when Hun Sen signaled his son “could be” prime minister in three or four weeks, depending on “whether Hun Manet will be able to do it or not”.
Hun Manet, 45, needs to win a National Assembly seat to become prime minister, which he is expected to do in Sunday’s general election. Analysts had expected the transition to come mid-term, giving time for Hun Manet to earn legitimacy with the public and political elite.
“Transferring power while he is still physically and mentally well, allows Hun Sen to strongly protect his son from any internal challenges,” said Gordon Conochie, an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University and author of a new book on Cambodia’s democracy.
“The reality is that as long as Hun Sen is around, nobody will move against Hun Manet.”
Hun Manet has given few media interviews and no clues over his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.
He earned a master’s degree at New York University and a doctorate at the University of Bristol, both in economics, and attended the West Point military academy, helping him rise through the ranks of Cambodia’s military to army chief and deputy armed forces commander.
Major powers will be watching closely for signs of whether Hun Manet will maintain the authoritarian status quo of his father or pursue greater liberalization and a more Western style of democracy.
A key focus will be if he seeks to steer Cambodia out of the orbit of China and patch up ties with the United States that have perennially been strained by his father’s iron-fisted approach.
Hun Manet declared “victory day” on Friday at an election rally before thousands of supporters, who braved the rain to give him rock star treatment, chanting his name and clambering for selfies and kisses.
He promised a vote for the CPP was “for a bright and prosperous future” and warned of unspecified “extremist” attempts to “destroy the election”.
The rhetoric echoes that of Hun Sen in his vitriol against opponents and pre-emptive strikes since May that have included disqualifying the CPP’s only meaningful rival, the Candlelight Party, over a paperwork technicality.
Authorities also banned self-exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy and 16 allies from voting and contesting elections for two decades for urging Cambodians to destroy their ballots.
There are 17 other mostly obscure parties running, none of which won seats in the last election, in 2018.
The CPP’s selling point has been its rural development and ensuring peace and stability after decades of war, which has helped spur average growth of more than 7 percent until 2019, creating jobs in garment manufacturing and construction.
“I want the next leader to ensure peace, not war,” said Phnom Penh resident, In Som, 83. “We do not want the country to go into war anymore.”
Conochie said a CPP landslide would not mean voters were fully behind the ruling party.
“They see no other option,” he said. “There are many Cambodians who are still committed to promoting democracy and human rights. This may not be their election but they will not give up.”
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Prak Chan Thul (Reuters)
● Sun, July 23, 2023