Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has worked long and hard to eliminate the chance of ever losing power.
Investing years in undermining and stifling the country’s popular but often weak political opposition, Hun Sen approaches a national election next weekend knowing it is a vote he is extremely unlikely to lose.
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The last remnant of Cambodia’s opposition movement was officially barred in May – on a technicality – from standing in the election, and Hun Sen has left few stones unturned in his efforts to root out what remains of dissent and to silence the dwindling number of his critics still in the country.
Three decades into Cambodia’s blighted democratic experiment, voters now say they associate the election process more with fear than hope for an opportunity to freely choose their country’s leadership.
In a dramatic reversal of the core principle of choice in elections, voters told Al Jazeera how they now feared the potential consequences of not voting for Hun Sen.
“I’m afraid they will check names,” said Phally*, a mother of five, who was concerned Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had access to voting data.
“And if they know I don’t vote,” she said, that is where the problems start.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Arizona State University and Cambodian politics analyst, said Cambodia’s elections have become a tool of oppression.
The public now votes with “a metaphorical gun” to their head, he said.
“Ultimately, is this even an election when there is no choice? China has elections too; as did the Soviet Union. Nobody pretended they were for real,” he added.
While 17 other small political parties registered to contest the election alongside Hun Sen’s ruling CPP on July 23, the disqualification of the Candlelight Party – the only credible opposition party – has ensured the election is a one-horse race.
The Candlelight Party was already a diminished but still popular replacement to Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which was itself dissolved by the country’s judiciary in 2017, four years after coming tantalisingly close to beating Hun Sen at the ballot box.
Cambodia’s leader for life
Notching up his 38th year in power, Hun Sen has outlasted other longtime strongmen, such as Zimbabwe’s late Robert Mugabe and Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi, leaving him close to the top of the list of the world’s long-standing political leaders still alive.
It is a crown that Hun Sen would be proud to claim.
“I have been in power in the government without interruption from January 8, 1979, until now,” Hun Sen bragged in a speech in April.
“More than 38 years as Prime Minister,” he said.
“There has not been such a case in the world. I won three records. The first record is the youngest foreign minister in the world. The second record is the youngest prime minister in the world. The third record is the longest-serving prime minister in the world.”
Though Hun Sen has effectively incapacitated all organised opposition in Cambodia, he still remains fixated on “colour revolutions” and so-called extremists backed by the West who he claims are working to topple him.
Hun Sen, 70, was first installed as prime minister in 1985 by political and military patrons in Vietnam who had intervened in the country six years earlier to remove Pol Pot’s radically Communist Khmer Rouge regime. A former deputy battalion commander with the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen had defected to Vietnam as the regime’s purges killed, starved and worked to death approximately two million people in Cambodia.
With his finely-tuned survival instincts, Hun Sen even managed to maintain power after a multiyear United Nations mission took over the administration of Cambodia in 1992 as part of a peace plan to end the country’s civil war, and in preparation for democratic elections, which Hun Sen’s party lost in 1993.
Since that first electoral loss, Hun Sen has not allowed a repeat.
He has cultivated personal loyalty among the country’s armed forces while seeing the wealth and power of his family, friends and patrons grow. He has also enacted strategic laws that have silenced his critics and hobbled all serious political competitors. Steady economic growth has also helped him posture as Cambodia’s leader for life.
Kim Sok, a political analyst who went into exile in 2018 in-between two defamation charges brought by the government, said a traditional Hun Sen tactic is to publicly call out his critics by name, which works both to threaten individual dissenters and also warn others away from speaking up for fear of being named.
Hun Sen’s tactic is to make his critics “fearful”, Kim Sok said.
“Many people don’t support him and still demand justice and democracy,” he said, explaining that Hun Sen builds support through the cultivation of fear.
It works as such: People who support Hun Sen vote for him, and people who do not support Hun Sen also vote for him, but out of fear.
“This is the reason that Hun Sen keeps threatening,” Kim Sok said.
In a speech streamed live on his Facebook page in January, Hun Sen warned his critics that they had a choice between facing the courts or being beaten up for saying his party had stolen votes in local elections.
An independent oversight board at Facebook’s parent company Meta ruled that Hun Sen had incited violence on the social media platform and recommended that the offending speech be removed and that the prime minister be suspended from Facebook and Instagram for six months.
Hun Sen’s reaction to the board’s condemnation was to delete his Facebook account – where he had amassed some 14 million followers – and announce he was moving over to Telegram and TikTok.
While Hun Sen did not mention the board’s ruling that he had incited violence online, Cambodia’s foreign ministry blacklisted the 22 members of Meta’s oversight board.
Describing the board’s ruling as “political in nature” and interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, the ministry declared the 22 members “personae non grata” and barred them from entering the country.
To vote or not to vote
With no credible opposition party to vote for, amendments by the government to electoral laws earlier in the year appeared to have been particularly prescient in terms of how to keep voting numbers high.
People who do not vote in two subsequent elections cannot run for office, and citizens can be fined for “incitement” if their advice or acts prevent others from voting.
Destroying a ballot paper was also prohibited.
One voter told Al Jazeera that she was confused by the new voting law amendments. She did not understand whether she might face a fine or other punishment for simply not voting.
“The government has not made people feel peaceful enough both mentally and physically,” she said, describing a general feeling ahead of the vote.
This election is also the first since Hun Sen said he was preparing to eventually hand over power, but only to his son, Hun Manet, the head of the Cambodian army and first-time candidate for election to the country’s lower-house National Assembly on July 23.
Another prospective voter in Phnom Penh commented that Hun Sen appeared preoccupied with his son’s transition into power and had failed to notice the struggles of everyday people like herself.
“Before the election, people are suffering more and more,” she said, explaining that people feel like their rights are being taken away and their futures are economically unstable.
Rather than talk in his speeches about creating jobs and economic opportunities for people, “he [Hun Sen] tends to make threats to the people”, she added.
Yet, for all Hun Sen’s power and intimidation tactics, as well as the ruling party’s “tight political control” over villages in rural areas, the disqualified Candlelight Party still won more than 20 percent of the popular vote in last year’s local elections, says Neil Loughlin, a lecturer at City, University of London who has researched Cambodia’s political structures.
Key to Hun Sen’s power is the construction of the national security forces as personally and politically aligned with him.
In this way, Hun Sen has positioned himself at the centre of the security forces and has created an environment where ambitious supporters of the prime minister can demonstrate loyalty by employing brutal tactics to suppress dissent, Loughlin wrote in a research paper in 2021.
“Indeed, whether during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, up until now, coercion has been the core feature of Cambodia’s authoritarianism,” he told Al Jazeera.
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.