Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Hun Sen has ensured that his party faces no strong challenge in the polls
By Jonathan Head, Lulu Luo & Frances Mao
BBC News in Phnom Penh and Singapore
Voting is underway in Cambodia, where the country’s long-term leader is virtually certain to extend his party’s rule in an election where there are no serious challengers.
People turning up to the polls in Phnom Penh told the BBC they expected the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep all 125 seats in parliament again.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years, faces no real challenge after the only credible opposition party was disqualified in May.
Critics have called the vote a sham.
“The election this year is not free nor fair, because the choice of two million people was taken away,” one voter in Phnom Penh told the BBC.
Western nations, including the US, have also expressed concerns about the integrity of the vote. To ensure the highest possible turnout when people are being offered no real choice, the government has criminalised any attempt to boycott the election or spoil the ballot papers.
Opposition lawmakers this year have reported violent attacks, with Human Rights Watch reporting the government stepped up intimidation and arbitrary arrests of political opposition in the run-up to the poll.
In May, the government barred the country’s main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, on a technicality. The National Election Commission said the party was missing paperwork, which it had not needed for the local elections last year.
Candlelight had won 22% of the vote in local elections last year – and analysts say Hun Sen saw them as a potential threat to his rule.
But the poll comes as Hun Sen, who cast his vote in the capital early on Sunday morning, shows the clearest signals yet that he’s planning to hand power to his eldest son, Hun Manet – possibly within weeks. The military chief has led the CPP’s campaign alongside his father.
Hun Sen has become increasingly authoritarian in his rule, political analysts say.
It is the second election in a row where Hun Sen has targeted democratic institutions and crippled the opposition before voting day, analysts say.
In 2018, his Cambodian People’s Party won every single seat in the 125-seat National Assembly after the main opposition alliance was dissolved by the politically controlled courts.
Seventeen other parties are participating in this year’s election, but almost all are too small, new or are aligned with the ruling party to be considered credible challengers.
The vote comes at an uncertain time for Cambodia’s economy – with locals reporting struggles with rising fuel prices, stagnant wages and growing debts.
While Hun Sen is campaigning for re-election, he has flagged that this may be his last term. In 2021, he said would hand over control to his eldest son who currently commands the Royal Cambodian Army.
Han Manet is a first-time candidate for a parliament seat this election and led the final day of party rallies in Phnom Penh on Friday.
No timeframe had been given for the transition of power until Thursday, when Hun Sen signalled his son “could be” prime minister in three or four weeks.
Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Hun Manet is expected to take over from his father
Hun Sen’s party has won all six of the national elections held every five years since the 1990s, when the UN helped the Southeast Asian nation of 16 million people become a functioning democracy post decades of civil war and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Over four decades, he has consolidated power through control of the military, police and moneyed interests. Observers say he has dispatched opponents through co-opting, jailing or exiling them.
One of Hun Sen’s rallying cries over the years has been that his leadership was essential to maintaining peace and stability to Cambodia – a potent message to a generation who had lived through decades of war and genocide.
But one voter told the BBC that this doesn’t resonate with younger generations.
“The previous generation has been through Khmer Rouge, which was very traumatising to them, they have PTSD, they passed the PTSD to their next generation as well.
“But we can see that it’s becoming less and less effective now. Since I was a child … the ruling party does something to remind people of the tragedy they had, remind people that they brought peace to them, so people should support them.
“But look at the next generation, every time the ruling party brought this up, the young generation mock them, because it has been repeated for 30 years.”