(Update 1: Changes lede, adds information and edits throughout)
Bangkok, July 23 (EFE).- Counting of ballots began Sunday afternoon after voting closed in Cambodia’s general election in which strongman Hun Sen ran virtually unopposed and that looked set to pave the way for a transition of power.
In the lead-up to the vote, the 70-year-old prime minister and his government eliminated all credible opposition, changed electoral laws, limited public access to independent information and silenced dissent, ensuring what was expected to be yet another victory for the leader – this time with succession on the horizon.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist since 1985, on Friday revealed that his 45-year-old eldest son, army commander Hun Manet, could take over his leadership in a matter of weeks following Sunday’s poll in which around 9.7 million eligible voters were called to vote between 7am (00:00 GMT) and 3pm local time.
Hun Sen cast his vote early in his southeastern home province of Kandal at about 7.15 am, while at 8 am Hun Manet voted at a school in capital Phnom Penh.
By 3pm, 80.59 percent of eligible voters had visited polling stations, Environment Ministry spokesman and ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) member Neth Pheaktra said in a tweet.
A number of ballots could be declared invalid after photos were posted to social media sites showing crossed-out voting papers, although these could not be independently verified.
The National Election Committee will broadcast preliminary results until midnight and continue from 8 am Monday, according to the government-aligned Fresh News.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
Before it had even started, Sunday’s vote had been expected to further entrench Hun Sen’s rule, with the main opposition party barred from running due to an administrative technicality, and with 17 other parties lacking the size and structure to be of any threat.
It was reminiscent of the last 2018 general election, when the CPP swept all 125 seats in parliament after critical media outlets were shut down and the popular main opposition party was dissolved by politically-controlled courts.
In addition, a recent change to an electoral law barring those who did not vote from running as a candidate in future elections affected any opponents who had been considering an election boycott, and opposition politicians in exile.
Access to information was also further impeded. In February, authorities shut down independent news outlet Voice of Democracy, and earlier this month, the government issued a letter to ISP providers to block the domains of Komnotra, a public database run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and news outlets Cambodia Daily Khmer and Radio Free Asia, both headquartered overseas.
“Having almost completely eliminated the free press inside Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government is now targeting media operating from abroad in order to perfect its information lockdown,” said Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani in a statement on Friday.
Other organizations also denounced the Cambodian government’s harassment and jailing of activists and dissidents.
All moves looked to be aimed at clearing the path for an uncontested victory that in turn would pave the way for a power transition.
Former Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen has in 2023 openly threatened opposition members and supporters with violence, while over past years projecting himself as the gatekeeper of stability and peace, warning citizens that the country could descend into civil war if the status quo is not maintained.
He has increasingly positioned his four-star general son as the person to succeed him, but with no set timeline, as Hun Manet, who temporarily parked his military chief duties to appear at the top of the CPP list on Sunday, has been carving out a public image of himself as a statesman closely linked to the legacy of his father.
However, in a surprise revelation, Hun Sen told China’s Phoenix TV in an interview that aired Friday that “in three or four weeks, Hun Manet can become the prime minister. It depends on whether Hun Manet will be able to do it or not,” according to a transcription by local media.