Cambodia Re-Elects Its Leader, a Result Predetermined by One

A poster of Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia at a campaign event in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Friday.

TRAPAING CHOUR, Cambodia — Prime Minister Hun Sen, the only leader that two-thirds of Cambodians have ever known, is not prone to leaving things to chance.

To ensure dominance in Sunday’s general elections, for which his Cambodian People’s Party declared victory on Sunday night, Mr. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who ranks as Asia’s longest-serving leader, did practically everything to stack the odds in his favor.

In November, a Cambodian court with little reputation for judicial independence dissolved the opposition party that nearly unseated Mr. Hun Sen’s governing party in elections in 2013. Its leader, Kem Sokha, now sits in jail on treason charges, accused of plotting with the United States to overthrow the government. (He denies the charges.)

Over the past year, scrappy independent news media outlets that once reported on government corruption and crony impunity have been silenced. Websites that carried negative portrayals of Mr. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party were blocked on the eve of Sunday’s vote.

Western nongovernmental organizations, which had pumped money into Cambodia as it was emerging from decades of conflict and genocide, have been kicked out. Mr. Hun Sen, 65, says they, too, were trying to topple his administration, which critics have called increasingly authoritarian.

With all of Mr. Hun Sen’s machinations to control the vote, the question that faced Cambodians on Election Day was not who would win; there is, after all, only one answer, and it is the man whose name graces thousands of schools across the country.

Instead, the real mystery was whether Cambodians were so deeply disenchanted with a rigged election that they would stay away from the polls or cast spoiled ballots.

On Sunday evening, Cambodia’s National Election Committee said that turnout had reached 82.17 percent, a figure that in the capital, Phnom Penh, at least, did not correspond with the sight of empty polling stations and residents walking around with fingers untouched by the ink used to denote those who had voted.

In commune elections last year, in which the opposition gained seats from the governing party, roughly 90 percent of voters cast ballots, a record turnout.

“It’s pointless to vote,” Bun Chea, a 26-year-old technician, said on Sunday as he passed by his polling station in Phnom Penh. “It won’t make any difference to our lives.”

In a speech on Friday, Mr. Hun Sen warned against a boycott of Sunday’s balloting. “Those who do not go to vote, and who are incited by the national traitors, are the ones who destroy democracy,” he said.

Besides the Cambodian People’s Party, the 19 other parties that contested the elections were mostly tiny “firefly” parties that glimmer during campaigning and then disappear.

But that did not stop the governing party from claiming in a statement on Sunday evening that its victory “clearly illustrated the enthusiasm and political rights of the Cambodian people in strengthening a multiparty democracy.”

Sok Eysan, the party’s spokesman, projected that it had won at least 100 seats out of 125 in Parliament, a significant increase over the last polls.

“A victory without a contest is a hollow one,” Sam Rainsy, the exiled co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the now-dissolved main opposition party — said in a statement on Sunday. “This senseless victory does nothing to resolve the political crisis that Cambodia faces as a result of the regime’s totalitarian drift over the last 12 months.”

On Saturday, El Sitha, a former district councilor from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, got a taste of what even humorous opposition to Mr. Hun Sen can catalyze. After posting a group picture on Facebook of fingers devoid of the ink that shows who has voted, Mr. El Sitha was summoned to his local police station.

“They dissolved my party, so what can I do?” Mr. El Sitha asked, adding, “The way to win is to sleep at home.”

Flush with foreign aid money, Cambodia was supposed to prove that democracy could be fostered by a concerned global community. After the fall in 1979 of the Khmer Rouge, the communist radicals who oversaw the deaths of at least one-fifth of the population, Cambodia was administered first by the Vietnamese and then by the United Nations.

While Western aid workers lectured on the superiority of a multiparty democracy, Mr. Hun Sen, who entered the leadership ranks during the Vietnamese regime, subverted that plan. Even as he has maintained the illusion of electoral politics, he outfoxed one co-prime minister and purged those who challenged his power.

And as American influence in the region wanes, Mr. Hun Sen has the backing of the Chinese, whose financial assistance is unburdened by admonitions that Cambodia improve its record on human rights.

During campaigning, Chinese diplomats appeared at events supporting Mr. Hun Sen. The Chinese ambassador to Cambodia spoke disparagingly of the European Union’s mulling of further sanctions on the country.

Mr. Hun Sen has returned the love, calling China a steadfast friend and accusing the West of trying to foment a color revolution in Cambodia.

Sok Eysan, the spokesman for the governing party, dismissed some of Mr. Hun Sen’s most incendiary talk.

“That’s just politics,” he said. “Our Cambodian foreign policy is to be friends with everyone who respects us.”

But Mr. Sok Eysan quickly shifted gears. “We don’t like any country that interferes in our country or tries to control us,” he said. “U.S. assistance to Cambodia has strings attached, but China doesn’t do that.”

On Wednesday in Washington, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would pave the way for sanctions against Cambodians who have undermined the country’s democracy. If it is approved by the Senate, offenders’ assets in the United States could be blocked, and they could be barred from entering the country.

On Sunday evening, the White House press office released a statement criticizing the voting. “The United States regrets that Cambodia’s July 29 parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people. The flawed elections, which excluded the country’s principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution.”

Given the widely held sense that Sunday’s vote was a sham, American, European and Japanese election monitors refused to observe the process. Instead, one of the largest groups charged with inspecting the polls was overseen by one of Mr. Hun Sen’s sons. The Chinese and Russians also sent delegations of observers.

Unlike in 2013, when a surge of youth voters almost propelled the opposition to victory, this election season was devoid of the energy that galvanized the last one.

At a sleepy polling station in Ariksat commune, outside Phnom Penh, a villager who gave only his first name, Heng, said he had deliberately spoiled his ballot.

“I didn’t write or tick anything,” he said. “I am not satisfied with this election because of the opposition’s absence.”

Others, though, said they admired Mr. Hun Sen for delivering more than 30 years of peace and stability, allowing for the development of Cambodia’s export-led economy. The nation’s city skylines are being transformed with high-rise projects that are often funded by foreign investment.

“Hun Sen grew up poor in the provinces, so he understands what our problems are,” said Sok Dorn, a noodle seller. “I hope his sons take over from him one day.”

The prime minister’s children are scattered in top military, government and business posts. At least two have been considered for a possible future American sanctions list.

Amid the rice paddies and lowland farms two hours outside Phnom Penh, a group of villagers from Trapaing Chour commune said their years of protest had brought no relief. They said their land had been seized by two companies, which have been linked by international rights campaigners to either governing party lawmakers or to Mr. Hun Sen’s sister.

Land grabs by well-connected politicians and businessmen are the biggest problem afflicting this predominantly rural nation.

Peung Thy served the nation as part of an elite bodyguard unit formed to protect Mr. Hun Sen. He fought during a brief border conflict with Thailand. But when his 10 hectares of land were taken from him to make way for a sugar plantation owned by Ly Yong Phat, a Cambodian tycoon, Mr. Peung Thy began to lose his sense of patriotism.

“I thought I was serving my country, but I was only serving the rich and powerful people who stole my land,” he said.

In 2015, Mr. Peung Thy joined a small political party founded by a popular grass-roots campaigner named Kem Ley. But less than a year after the party came into existence, Mr. Kem Ley was shot dead as he was buying his morning coffee in Phnom Penh. Other activists have also been killed, particularly those investigating illegal trades like timber.

Back in Phnom Penh, Perk Chrep, a 30-year-old worker in Cambodia’s important garment industry, fretted that she had little choice in the electoral exercise. The line manager at her Chinese-owned factory, she said, had warned the seamstresses several times that if they did not come back to work with ink on their fingers, they need not return at all.

Ever since garment workers flocked to the opposition in the 2013 elections, Mr. Hun Sen has courted this demographic, regularly holding rallies where he handed out envelopes of cash.

But Ms. Perk Chrep, who makes $300 a month with overtime pay, said she did not want to sell her vote. She mourned the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which she said had worked to guarantee basic rights for garment workers.

Sitting in a single room devoid of furniture, Ms. Perk Chrep said that all she wanted to do was send a message to Mr. Hun Sen.

“I want him to reflect on what he has promised the people in Cambodia,” she said. “Does he really think he has achieved that much except for adding more years to his rule?”

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