PHNOM PEHN, Cambodia (AP) – With the main opposition silenced, Cambodians voted in an election Sunday virtually certain to return to office Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party, who have been in power for more than three decades.
Although 20 parties contested the polls, the only one with the popularity and organization to mount a credible challenge, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court. Its leaders had called on supporters to boycott the polls, charging they were neither fair nor free.
Along with fracturing the political opposition, Hun Sen’s government also silenced critical voices in the media. Ahead of the polls, it ordered the temporary blocking of 17 websites, citing regulations prohibiting media from disseminating information that might affect security. The blocked websites included those of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America as well as local media.
Hun Sen, whose 33 years in power make him the world’s longest-serving national leader, promised peace and prosperity at a rally on the last day of campaigning on Friday, but attacked the opposition’s boycott call and called those who heed it “destroyers of democracy.” Hun Sen and his wife cast their ballots south of the capital shortly after polling stations opened.
Polling stations closed at 3 p.m. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said on his Facebook page that 75 percent of the 8.3 million registered voters went to the polls. Preliminary results are expected Sunday night.
After the polls closed, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had earlier urged Cambodians not to vote, slammed the election.
“For the Cambodian people, unable to make a real choice because of the absence of the CNRP, the result of this false election conducted in a climate of fear is a betrayal of the popular will,” Sam Rainsy posted on his Facebook page.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party was alarmed by the last general election in 2013, when the race was close enough for the opposition to claim that it would have won had it not been for manipulation of the voter registration process.
“This Cambodian election is not going to be genuine and it’s not going to be free or fair,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “The problem is the opposition party – the CNRP – which won 44 percent in the local elections in 2017 has been barred. You’re talking about an election without an opposition.”
Hun Sen, 65, has said he intends to stay in power for at least two more five-year terms.
He was a member of the radical communist Khmer Rouge during its successful five-year war to topple a pro-American government, then defected to Vietnam during Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s 1975-79 genocidal regime that left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead. He became prime minister in 1985 in a Vietnamese-backed single-party communist government and led Cambodia through a civil war against the Khmer Rouge, which eased off with the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that also installed a democratic political framework.
On Saturday, Hun Sen met with foreign election observers, including those from Russia, China and Indonesia. The U.S., the EU and Japan declined to send poll watchers, saying the election was not credible.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said inclusive elections in Cambodia, with civil society and political parties exercising their democratic rights, are essential to safeguard the country’s progress in consolidating peace.
Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the Cambodia Democracy Act “to promote free and fair elections, political freedoms and human rights in Cambodia and impose sanctions on Hun Sen’s inner circle.”
The measure, which strongly condemns Hun Sen’s regime, would bar individuals designated by President Donald Trump from entering the U.S. and block any assets or property they may possess. It suggested that a list of those who should be sanctioned include Hun Sen, several of his close family members and about a dozen top officials and military officers.
Cambodian officials and ruling party members rejected the measure as counterproductive interference in Cambodia’s affairs.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.