Cambodians are voting on Sunday in a general election overshadowed by the forced absence of a viable opposition candidacy to challenge long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose party looks certain to win the poll comfortably.
Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia for 33 years and says he wants to hold office for at least another 10, campaigned on promises of continued economic development, peace and stability.
But critics have condemned the vote as illegitimate and called for a boycott following the dissolution of the largest opposition political force – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – and a government crackdown against dissent.
The ballot includes 19 small, lesser-known parties that observers say do not present a meaningful challenge to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen.
However, officials say the number of parties in the race shows Cambodia has a multiparty democracy.
The CNRP, which almost won five years ago, was dissolved in November 2017 by court order at the government’s request. This followed the jailing of party leader Kem Sokha on widely criticised treason charges that he denies.
Warning over boycott
In protest against being banned from Sunday’s poll, senior CNRP leaders – many of whom fled the country last year amid a wider government crackdown on the opposition, independent media and civil society – have urged voters to stay away.
Voting is not compulsory but that did not stop Hun Sen threatening anyone who does not take part.
“Whoever doesn’t participate in this election destroys democracy, following the illegal propaganda movement,” he said at a recent election rally, referring to CNRP which was dissolved for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government with foreign help.
|Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) says he wants to rule for 10 more years [Samrang Pring/Reuters]|
Officials have also said people advocating against voting could be prosecuted for obstructing voters or creating confusion about the election, which is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.
But rights groups and proponents of the boycott have said the campaign constitutes free speech.
Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Stimson Center, said the vote “will result in a continuation of Hu Sen’s authoritarian grip over Cambodia which continues to deepen, so it’s no surprise that the exiled CNRP opposition party is calling this a sham and calling for a boycott”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Washington, DC, Eyler added: “Hu Sen’s CPP is saying. ‘if you do not vote, you are against democracy’, instead of promoting multi-party democracy and robust participation of opposition parties.”
A number of countries, including Russia, China and Indonesia have sent observers, to watch polling but Japan, a long-time supporter of the Cambodian government, has refused to do so.
The United States and the European Union, meanwhile, withdrew funding for the election.
“Hun Sen has overseen much more than just the demise of his only real political opposition,” Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, said.
“There have also been attacks on independent media organisations and NGOs with many staff harassed, arrested or forced to leave the country – more reasons why many people are dismissing this election as a sham.”
The polls will close at 3pm local time (08:00 GMT).
Preliminary results expected to be announced late on Sunday.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies