By Noel Caballero
Bangkok, Jul 21 (EFE).- Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for almost four decades, looks to extend his rule on Sunday in the country’s general election for which he has stamped out any credible opposition and with signs of succession on the horizon.
On Friday, his eldest son Hun Manet presided over a large rally of the leader’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in capital Phnom Penh for the closing of its electoral campaign.
As Hun Sen did in the months leading up to the last 2018 election, when his CPP won all 125 seats in parliament, the prime minister has again been eliminating political opposition and critical media before Sunday’s poll.
In May, the National Election Committee barred the biggest opposition Candlelight Party – heir to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main opposition formation dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 – from running, and in February authorities shut down Voice of Democracy, one of the last independent media outlets operating in the country.
Although analysts say that the Candlelight Party, which achieved 22 percent of the votes in the 2022 local elections, did not pose a risk to Hun Sen’s re-election, its disqualification leaves the path completely clear for another CPP walkover.
To further entrench future political control, at the end of June, parliament – completely dominated by the CPP – approved a law to prohibit those who do not vote from running as a candidate in future elections, a measure aimed at blocking opposition politicians in exile.
Some 9.7 million Cambodians are called to the polls to choose between the CPP and a dozen small parties that lack a nationwide structure and that, according to activists critical of the prime minister, serve to give the elections a false multi-party appearance.
Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985 and has ruled the nation with an iron fist ever since, has on occasion mentioned the possibility of handing over the baton after the elections to a new generation of politicians.
However, the 70-year-old strongman has also declared, sometimes jokingly, that he sees himself reaching 2028, when the term from Sunday’s vote would end.
What he has made clear is that he hopes to pass the baton to Hun Manet, a 45-year-old four-star general who has temporarily parked his military chief duties to appear at the top of the CPP electoral list.
In December 2021, Hun Sen declared his support for his eldest son to succeed him as prime minister sometime before the 2028 polls, a boost that was followed by a cascade of public endorsements from institutions, political parties and even people linked to the defunct opposition.
Commander of the army since 2018, Hun Sen’s son has in recent years been carving out a public image of himself as a statesman closely linked to the legacy of his father.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said early last month that “numerous and significant irregularities” detected in the 2022 local elections raised concern for Sunday’s poll.
“Serious allegations of vote tampering, fraud, and improper counting of votes during the 2022 commune elections call into question the credibility of Cambodia’s National Election Committee,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
In its pre-election assessment mission report released last month, election watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) said that it “unequivocally concludes that the elections scheduled for July 2023 in Cambodia will continue to fall short of being free and fair.”
Anfrel expressed concern for the “independence and neutrality” of the National Election Committee, stating that there is a “clear bias towards the ruling Cambodian People’s Party which undermines the integrity of the electoral process.”
“The exclusion of the Candlelight Party from participating in the upcoming elections serves as a stark example of the highly restricted political space and the severe limitations imposed on opposition parties,” it underlines, highlighting “a deteriorating political landscape” in Cambodia.