‘UN pls help’: Cambodia PM Hun Sen’s party claims landslide election win in unopposed election

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Key points

  • The ruling CPP was virtually unopposed in the election.
  • The focus is on when the Prime Minister will make way for his son.
  • According to the opposition figurehead, the CPP is understating spoiled ballots.
  • The turnout of 84 per cent is the highest since the 1990s.
  • Hun Sen stated that his rivals’ plan to undermine the election has failed.

Phnom Penh: The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) declared a landslide victory in a one-sided election on Sunday, clearing the path for a historic leadership transition and the end of the reign of one of the world’s longest-serving premiers.

The contest was effectively a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP, a political behemoth with a vast war chest, facing no viable opponent after a ruthless, years-long crackdown that has seen hundreds of its rivals flee into exile.

Hun Manet, of the Cambodian People’s Party, son of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, also army chief, shows off his inked finger outside a polling station after voting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.Credit: AP

The CPP was leading in ballot counting late on Sunday, with a turnout of 84 per cent, according to the election committee, with 8.1 million people voting in a lopsided contest between the CPP and 17 mostly obscure parties.

“We’ve won in a landslide … but we can’t calculate the number of seats yet,” CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said.

Self-styled strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 38 years, had brushed off Western concern about the election’s credibility, determined to prevent any obstacle in his carefully calibrated transition to his anointed successor and eldest son, Hun Manet.

Russian election observers stand at a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.Credit: AP

No timeframe had been given for the handover until Thursday, when Hun Sen, 70, signalled that Western-educated military general Hun Manet “could be” prime minister next month.

A National Assembly seat would make him eligible, if backed by the house. Party spokesperson Sok Eysan said it was “very clear” Hun Manet won a seat.

Hun Manet has given few media interviews and no clues over his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.

He earned a master’s degree at New York University and a doctorate at the University of Bristol, both in economics, and attended the West Point military academy, helping him rise through the ranks of Cambodia’s military to army chief and deputy armed forces commander.

Closely watched transition

Major powers will be watching closely for signs of whether Hun Manet will maintain the authoritarian status quo of his father or pursue greater liberalisation and a more Western style of democracy.

After casting his vote on Sunday, Hun Manet ducked questions about becoming premier and whether he would rule differently from his father.

“No comment please. I’ve just come to vote,” he said in English, smiling.

The European Union, the United States and other Western countries refused to send observers, 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 at 7am on Sunday in his home district outside of the capital, Phnom Penh.

Analysts had expected the transition to come mid-term, giving Hun Manet time to earn legitimacy with the public and political elite.

A key focus will be if he seeks to steer Cambodia out of the orbit of China and patch up ties with the United States that have perennially been strained by his father’s iron-fisted approach.

A CPP rout was never in doubt after preemptive strikes by authorities that included disqualifying the CPP’s only meaningful rival, the Candlelight Party, over a paperwork technicality.

Former Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen has been accused by activists of publicly threatening rivals and inciting violence, which led to Meta Platforms’ oversight board recommending his suspension from Facebook. The government has denied persecuting opponents.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) kisses a ballot before voting.Credit: AP

The election committee also banned self-exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy and 16 allies from elections for two decades for urging Cambodians to destroy ballots in protest.

Some did that, posting images of their ballots on social media, some with writing disparaging Hun Sen and calling him a coward. Another ballot said “UN pls help”.

“The surprise of the day will be the number and the percentage of ‘spoiled’ ballots,” Rainsy said on Twitter. “You can’t win an election with no opposition.”

Despite the CPP government’s stranglehold over independent institutions, including the poll body, and allegations by activists of complicity in land grabs and environmental destruction, the party has consistently won the rural vote, reflecting improvements in basic infrastructure.

Its selling point has been ensuring peace and stability after decades of war, which spurred average growth of more than 7 per cent until 2019, creating jobs in garment manufacturing and construction.

Hun Sen said the turnout, the highest in three decades, showed his “extremist” opponents had failed to derail the election. He urged those who destroyed ballots not to flee the country and suggested they own up.

“We already know your faces,” he said on Telegram. “Don’t be afraid, you may come out and confess … otherwise, legal measures will be taken.”

Reuters, AP

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