Cambodia faces rigged election as Hun Sen extends control
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Cambodia’s ruler launched the most ruthless crackdown of his career a few years ago.

When Hun Sen faced popular opposition, he used the courts to dismantle the political party that threatened his rule. MPs were thrown out of parliament, while leaders were arrested.

In the 2018 election, he won all 125 seats in the Cambodian parliament after crushing his rivals.

With their only alternative already banned, it’s already seen with voters heading to the polls again this Sunday.

According to one voter, an aid worker in Phnom Penh, the election is rigged because there are no strong opposition parties.

Cambodia has been ruled by Hun Sen since 1985, when he was 70 years old. Former Khmer Rouge official who defected to Vietnam before the regime fell, he boasts that he is the longest-serving prime minister in the world.

In nearly 40 years, he has consolidated power through a network of interests, including the military, the police, and intelligence agencies.

Throughout the years, he has co-opted, jailed, exiled, or otherwise sidelined opponents.

After the Khmer Rouge regime’s horrors, the UN established Cambodia as a democracy in the 1990s. Hun Sen is considered a dictator by most standards, but political analysts say it has become an authoritarian one-party state.

“I feel hopeless about the current situation,” said a voter in Phnom Penh. During his early 20s, he voted for the opposition, impassioned by the prospect of change.

Hun Sen crushed that movement, however. In these days, criticizing the government during an election is frowned upon.

The Cambodian economy remains one of the poorest in Asia – and locals are struggling with fuel prices and stagnant wages. Public accountability is weak, corruption is endemic. As a result of land grabs and rising crime, life has become even more difficult.

There is no doubt that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win in Sunday’s election.

“This will result in no representative voices in parliament that can represent the interests of the people,” the voter said.

The people have remained silent this time around because of that.”

Hun Sen, seen in the late 1980s (L) and in 2023 (R), has been in power 38 years

As of some time after this election, Hun Sen will hand over power to his son. Experts say that as his era nears an end, he has become increasingly erratic, repressive, and vindictive.

During this year’s election, he dragged the only credible opposition along for months before banning them.

Last year, the Candlelight Party emerged from the ashes of the former opposition. At last year’s local commune elections, they won 22% of the vote despite widespread intimidation and evidence of tampering.

Hun Sen could not tolerate that. Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on dictators at Australia’s Griffith University who has monitored Hun Sen for years, says Hun Sen “suffocated Candlelight” well in advance of their becoming a major threat.

The electoral office disqualified Candlelight on a technicality after Hun Sen threatened Candlelight leaders with lawsuits in February.

17 other parties are on the ballot, but they are so small or aligned with the ruling party that they are irrelevant.

The rules were changed in the middle of the game, so he was disqualified in the final stretch because of an administrative requirement that had never existed before.

As they attempted to flee to the UN’s refugee office in Bangkok, two leaders were captured by Thai police last week.