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Hun Sen's party claims a win in Cambodian election after opposition was suppressed

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) shows off his inked finger, standing next to his wife Bun Rany, left, after voting a ballot at a polling station in Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 23, 2023.
Heng Sinith
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) shows off his inked finger, standing next to his wife Bun Rany, left, after voting a ballot at a polling station in Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Updated July 23, 2023 at 9:27 PM ET

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The ruling party of Cambodia's longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed a landslide victory in Sunday's general election, an outcome that was virtually assured after the suppression and intimidation of the opposition in a vote called a farce of democracy.

Hun Sen posted on his Telegram channel late Sunday that unofficial results compiled by authorities in each province showed the Cambodian People's Party won 120 seats and the royalist FUNCINPEC party won five.

The National Election Committee said 84.6% of eligible voters had cast ballots. CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan told The Associated Press he believed his party captured 78-80% of the total turnout.

The European Union, the United States and other Western countries had refused to send observers to the polls, saying the election lacked the conditions to be considered free and fair. That left international officials from Russia, China and Guinea-Bissau to watch as Hun Sun voted shortly after the polls opened in his home district outside of the capital, Phnom Penh.

He held his ballot high for all to see, before depositing it into the silver metal box and leaving the station, pausing to take selfies and shake hands with supporters outside.

The longest-serving leader in Asia, Hun Sen has steadily consolidated power with strong-arm tactics over the last 38 years. But, at age 70, he has suggested he will hand off the premiership during the upcoming five-year term to his oldest son, Hun Manet, perhaps as early as the first month after the elections.

Hun Manet, 45, is chief of Cambodia's army. He is a West Point graduate with a master's degree from New York University and a doctorate from Bristol University in Britain.

Despite his Western education, however, observers don't expect any immediate shifts in policy after his father steadily moved Cambodia closer to China in recent years.

"I don't think anyone expects Hun Sen to sort of disappear once Hun Manet is prime minister," said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a Cambodia expert at Sweden's Lund University. "I think they will probably be working closely together and I don't think that there is a big difference in their political outlook, including foreign policy."

Hun Manet is part of an expected generational change in the ruling party, which plans to install younger leaders in most ministerial positions.

"That's going to be the big change of guard, that's what I'm watching," Norén-Nilsson said. "It's all about the transition, it's all about who's going to come in and in what positions they find themselves."

At the station where Hun Sen cast his ballot, voter Nan Sy, a former lawmaker himself with a smaller royalist party, said the main issue for him was stability.

"Without stability we cannot talk about education, we cannot talk about development," the 59-year-old said without saying who he voted for.

There were few reports of any protests against the elections, but Gen. Khieu Sopheak, Cambodia's national police spokesperson, said 27 people were being sought over allegations they called for voters to spoil their ballots in a Telegram chat channel. He said there had been two arrests at polling stations as well.

Hun Sen had been a middle-ranking commander in the radical communist Khmer Rouge responsible for genocide in the 1970s before defecting to Vietnam. When Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, he quickly became a senior member of the new Cambodian government installed by Hanoi.

A wily and sometimes ruthless politician, Hun Sen has maintained power as an autocrat in a nominally democratic framework.

His party's stranglehold on power faltered in 2013 elections, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party won 44% of the popular vote to CPP's 48%. Hun Sen responded by going after leaders of the opposition, primarily through sympathetic courts, which eventually dissolved the party after local elections in 2017 when it again fared well.

Ahead of Sunday's election, the Candlelight Party, the unofficial successor to the CNRP and only other contender capable of mounting a credible challenge, was barred on a technicality from contesting the polls by the National Election Committee.

The methods prompted widespread criticism from rights groups.

Human Rights Watch said the "election bears little resemblance to an actual democratic process," while the Asian Network for Free Elections, an umbrella organization of almost 20 regional NGOs, said the National Election Committee had showed a "clear bias" toward the CPP in barring the Candlelight Party.

"Such disqualification further exacerbates the imbalanced and unjust political environment, leaving minimal room for opposition voices to compete on equal footing with the ruling party," the group said in a joint statement.

"Moreover, the shrinking space available for civil society and the deliberate targeting of human rights defenders and activists raise serious alarm. The constriction of civic space undermines the active participation of civil society in the electoral process without fear of reprisal."

Compared to the way the opposition was neutralized in 2018, popular discontent this time did not seem widespread, Norén-Nilsson said, because Hun Sen and the CPP have been effective at building a sense among Cambodians that they are part of a new national project.

The strategy has involved careful messaging, with sweeping slogans like "small country, big heart," and little talk about policy, she said.

"It's really quite astonishing how the CPP has managed to gain at least acceptance for what we see now," she said. "If before people thought that the glass was half empty, now it's half full, so you focus more on what you have than don't have."

With the Candlelight Party out of the running, 18 parties participated and only two won seats.

FUNCINPEC is a French acronym for the National Front for an Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia. It was founded in 1981 by Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk and defeated the CPP in U.N.-run elections in 1993, but his son, Norodom Ranariddh, ended up having to agree to a co-premiership with Hun Sen. The party has evolved into a tamed opposition force that rarely challenges the ruling party's actions.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]