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HANOI — A crowded field of 20 political parties will compete in Cambodia’s general election later this month, but Prime Minister Hun Sen is on course to retain his grip on power after eliminating the one that posed a real threat to his three-decade rule.
Most Cambodians have watched in silence as the authoritarian government has undermined the opposition ahead of voting.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is widely expected to keep its majority in the 123-seat lower house when voters go to the polls on July 29. The second biggest party, the royalist Funcinpec, is aligned with the CPP.
The only force clearly opposing Hun Sen is the Grassroots Democracy Party. But the GDP’s founder, the prominent political commentator Kem Ley, was shot dead in July 2016.
Last month, the party took to social media to contrast its use of ideas with the CPP’s use of force. In response, Hun Sen dismissed Yang Saing Koma, a farmer turned GDP’s prime minister candidate, as a political novice who knows only how to “grow vegetables.”
The CPP and Funcinpec control nearly all of the seats in the lower house after last November’s forced dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which held 55 seats after making big gains in the 2013 election.
Hun Sen’s government introduced legislation last summer that would dissolve political parties whose leaders have been convicted of criminal offenses. CNRP head Kem Sokha was arrested that September on charges of plotting a U.S.-backed revolution.
In November, the Supreme Court officially disbanded the CNRP, and 118 CNRP politicians are barred from engaging in any political activity for five years. Parliamentary seats held by the CNRP were reallocated to smaller parties
With the CNRP out of the picture, Hun Sen’s party swept the upper house election in February this year, capturing all 58 seats.
Sam Rainsy, the former head of the CNRP, has called for a boycott of the election to end Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule. He has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2015 to avoid criminal prosecution he says is politically motivated.
The CNRP is said to have a base of 3 million supporters in the nation of 16 million people. But most have remained silent in the face of rising repression.
Even among those not behind the party, dissatisfaction with the government is rife. So is the fear of reprisal. “My boss tells me never to voice my discontent with the government,” said a woman in her 20s.
While Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, is consolidating his power, he is also busy courting voters. He has visited factories almost every week since January. In May, the prime minister met with about 5,000 workers in the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone. He has also made train rides to an airport free, introduced special allowances for pregnant factory workers, and delivered other measures designed for public appeal.
The U.S. has been the harshest critic of Hun Sen’s power grab, suspending some aid to Cambodia’s government and military in February. Washington followed up in June by imposing sanctions on Hing Bun Hieng, who commands Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. Americans are barred from doing business with him, and his U.S. assets are frozen. The European Union is weighing sanctions as well.
Yet Hun Sen maintains his cool against the international pressure. “If foreign countries want to freeze the accounts of leaders of the CPP or other government officials, let them do it,” he has said. This composure stems from Cambodia’s deepening political and economic ties with China.
Chinese corporations are setting up shop in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. High-rise condominiums under construction bear the names, in Chinese, of corporations such as China State Construction Engineering and Sino Great Wall. Chinese restaurants and supermarkets are on the rise, as are places to exchange yuan for local currency.
Chinese direct investment in Cambodia reached $5.1 billion in 2016, while the number of Chinese visitors that year rose by a fifth to 830,000.
For China, the relationship has major significance for Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, given Cambodia’s location in Southeast Asia. Hun Sen’s government has also sided with Beijing in South China Sea territorial disputes.
China will send election observers to Cambodia, according to a Reuters report. Despite never holding democratic elections within its own borders, Beijing intends to give the vote a seal of approval.
About 70% of Cambodia’s voters cast ballots in the 2013 general election. The turnout jumped to near 90% in last year’s local elections as opposition parties gained in popularity.