Bangkok, July 23 (EFE).- Polling booths opened across Cambodia on Sunday morning for voting in what could be strongman leader Hun Sen’s last election, in a virtually uncontested poll widely seen as a sham.
The 70-year-old prime minister prepared for the vote by eliminating credible opposition, changing electoral laws, limiting public access to independent information and silencing dissent to enable a clear path to another expected victory.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist since 1985, on Friday also revealed in an interview that his 45-year-old eldest son, army commander Hun Manet, could take over his leadership in a matter of weeks following Sunday’s polls.
Around 9.7 million eligible voters have been called to the polling stations to vote between 7am (00:00 GMT) and 3 pm local time.
Hun Sen cast his vote in his southeastern home province, Kandal, at about 7.15 am, while at 8 am Hun Manet voted at a school in capital Phnom Penh.
In the last 2018 general election, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept all 125 seats in the parliament after critical media outlets were shut down and the popular main opposition party was dissolved by politically-controlled courts.
Sunday’s vote looks set to entrench his rule further, with the new main opposition party barred from running due to an administrative technicality, and with 17 other parties lacking the size and structure to be any threat.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
A recent change to an electoral law barring those who do not vote from running as a candidate in future elections also affects any opponents considering an election boycott, and opposition politicians in exile.
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.
Human Rights Watch warned at the beginning of the month that “numerous and significant irregularities” in last year’s local elections, including “serious allegations of vote tampering, fraud, and improper counting of votes” raised concerns for Sunday’s vote.
A joint statement also issued Saturday by 17 civil society NGOs expressed their “profound concern” for the polls, widely seen as a sham.
“We firmly believe that this election is poised to lack genuineness and meaningful electoral competitiveness, raising serious doubts about its adherence to democratic principles and international election standards,” it said.
It also warned that the election “is likely to fall short of meeting the criteria for credible elections, including transparency, inclusion and accountability of election stakeholders.”
In a letter Thursday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights urged the governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand to “unequivocally denounce the 2023 electoral exercise in Cambodia as undemocratic.”
“Any elections held under the present circumstances cannot possibly be free and fair, nor should any government created from such elections be recognized as legitimate by the international community,” it said.
Others have denounced the Cambodian government’s harassment and jailing of activists and dissidents with the aim of clearing the path for an uncontested victory that in turn paves 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.