Cambodia’s ruling party says on course for ‘landslide’

CAMBODIA (AFP): Cambodia’s ruling party declared on Sunday that it was on course for a “landslide” victory in an election where all meaningful opposition to long-time ruler Hun Sen was eliminated before polling day.

The 70-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre has ruled since 1985 and faced no real contest in the vote, with opposition parties banned, challengers forced to flee and freedom of expression stifled.

His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is expected to retain all 125 seats in the lower house, prolonging his grip on power and paving the way for him to hand the reigns to his son in a dynastic succession some critics have compared to North Korean politics.

The only serious opposition party was disqualified on a technicality in the run-up to the polls, and it will be a surprise if any of the 17 other small, poorly funded parties win seats.

“We are winning a landslide,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told AFP around two hours after polls closed, with counting under way.

Official results are expected within hours.

More than 9.7 million people were registered to vote in Cambodia’s seventh election since the United Nations first sponsored polls in 1993, after years of conflict — including the era of the genocidal Khmer Rouge — left the country devastated.

Over the last 30 years, whatever hopes the international community might have had for a vibrant multi-party democracy in Cambodia have been flattened by the juggernaut of Hun Sen’s rule.

The veteran PM has begun to look to the future, saying he will hand over to his son, four-star general Hun Manet — possibly even in the coming weeks.

“We have exercised our civil right and responsibility and right… of citizens to vote to choose the party we love to lead the country,” the 45-year-old scion told reporters after casting his ballot.

Many wonder whether Hun Manet, educated in the United States and Britain, might bring change to the country — though Hun Sen has made it clear that he intends to keep pulling strings even after his son takes over.

Asked by AFP what he planned to do for Cambodia when he became prime minister, Hun Manet replied: “I have no comment on that.”

Rights groups have condemned the election.

On the eve of voting, a 17-strong coalition — including the Asian Network for Free Elections and the International Federation for Human Rights — said the election was of “profound concern”.

Voter turnout recorded at 3:16 pm (0816 GMT) was 78 percent, with 7,601,326 votes cast, according to the National Election Committee.

  • Parties dissolved –

The only real challenge to the CPP had come from the Candlelight Party (CP). But Cambodia’s electoral body refused to register the party in May, rendering it ineligible to compete.

The decision came after the CP performed better than expected at last year’s local elections, winning 22 percent of the popular vote.

Internationally, Hun Sen has played off tensions between the United States and China, racking up huge sums in Chinese investment that came with no demands for democratic reforms.

Speaking before the vote, the CP told AFP that the registration decision meant there was no way the election could be either free or fair.

“Everyone knows who will win,” said Rong Chhun, the party’s vice-president.

There was similar despondency among some people voting under heavy police presence at a dusty polling station in Phnom Penh.

“I don’t feel excited or anything because there are no opposition parties left,” Oum Sokum, 51, told AFP.

But in a country that was torn apart within living memory by genocide and war, others said they were happy to vote for stability.

“I want to vote for the person who can help the country become more developed. I want to live in peace and have harmony,” Chea Phearak, 36, told AFP.

Freedom of speech has been heavily stifled ahead of the election, with one of the few remaining independent news outlets, Voice of Democracy, shut down earlier this year.

And last month, Hun Sen ordered election laws changed, banning anyone who fails to vote in the poll from ever running for office — a move that will affect exiled rivals.

Among them is long-time foe Sam Rainsy, in self-exile in France for almost a decade to avoid criminal convictions he says are politically motivated.

Domestically, opposition leader Kem Sokha languishes under house arrest, after being sentenced to 27 years for treason over an alleged plot with foreigners to topple Hun Sen’s government.