PHNOM PENH (Reuters): Tens of thousands of supporters of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rallied in Phnom Penh on the last day of campaigning for Sunday’s general election, in which he faces almost no challenge to extending 33 years in power. The election will be Cambodia’s sixth since it emerged from decades of war in 1993 and critics of Hun Sen brand the vote a sham after the elimination of the main opposition party and a crackdown on independent media and dissent.
“I won’t lead the party into defeat,” Hun Sen told supporters on Friday, as they waved the blue flags of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Bands sang songs praising Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving prime minister, a former Khmer Rouge commander who eventually defected from Pol Pot’s murderous regime. The election has been criticized by the United Nations and Western countries as fundamentally flawed after the Supreme Court last year dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over accusations of plotting to topple the government. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned for treason. The party, which only narrowly lost the 2013 election, denied the accusation and most CNRP leaders have since fled abroad, leaving no significant competitor to Hun Sen’s party.
Of the 19 other parties standing on Sunday, none are strongly critical of Hun Sen or the government. Smaller parties together won less than 7 percent of the vote in 2013. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warned the vote was a foregone conclusion. “This is a farcical ritual to rubber stamp Hun Sen’s grip on power,” APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament, said in a statement.
Voting is voluntary in Cambodia, so turnout will be a key test of the CPP’s legitimacy. It was nearly 70 percent in 2013. Some exiled opposition members urged Cambodians to boycott the election and some voters told Reuters this week that they were being coerced into voting for Hun Sen’s CPP, a claim the party denies.