The Associated Press
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Although 11 parties are geared to fight it out in Cambodia’s upcoming national elections, the contest is all but certain to be a one-horse race.
No-one seems to have any doubt that Prime Minister Hun Sen (pictured), Asia’s longest-serving head of government, will retain his stranglehold over the country’s politics. Least of all himself.
“I wish to state it very clearly this way: No one can defeat Hun Sen. Only Hun Sen alone can defeat Hun Sen,” he said in a speech earlier this year.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party began almost three decades ago as a communist party that headed a single-party state.
But, as Cambodia changed into a multiparty democracy, so did the party evolve, and proved itself the master of the field.
Today Hun Sen – once a member of the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge – is crowing that he’ll bring the country boundless riches thanks to offshore oil discovered by an ultra-capitalist American oil company, Chevron.
In an hour-long speech at a recent development conference, he unequivocally told the audience he’ll remain in power long enough to manage the expected windfall from the black gold, sometime in the next decade.
He spoke as if he had already won a new five-year term in office, though balloting won’t be held until July 27.
More than eight million out of Cambodia’s 14 million people are eligible to vote, according the elections committee.
An oil bonanza would further bolster Hun Sen’s already unchallenged stature at the expense of the country’s democratic freedoms, analysts say.
Once oil production starts, Hun Sen will find it easier to ignore the pressures to liberalize from foreign aid donors – on which the country is now still heavily reliant.
He will instead curb freedom of expression, assembly and the press, said Lao Mong Hay, a senior researcher at the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.
Elections have become a “veneer of democracy,” he said, adding that Hun Sen’s expected victory would further empower “the present oligarchy composed of people in power and tycoons.”
Through guile and threat, Hun Sen has run Cambodia since 1985, when he became prime minister of a Vietnamese-installed communist government.
A peasant’s son, he has intimidated, out-smarted and co-opted his rivals, including those who have spent decades being versed in Western education and democracy.
For years, Cambodia was wracked by civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, whose 1975-79 “killing fields” regime left some 1.7 million Cambodians dead.
A UN-sponsored peace process led to 1993 elections that Hun Sen’s party lost – but he managed to muscle his way into the government anyway as co-prime minister.
Less than four years later, he ousted his coalition partner when their rivalry turned violent and his forces emerged victorious after a few days of bloody fighting in and around the capital.
His party easily won elections in 1998 over a divided opposition and hasn’t lost a poll since. It now holds 73 of the 123 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Hun Sen has also presided over the fast growth of the economy, which remains small by international standards.
Having run the country for three decades, his party has built a firm grass-roots apparatus and can draw on financial wealth unmatched by its opponents.
Supporters include some of the country’s wealthiest tycoons, who regularly dole out cash to finance rural projects such as schools and roads, often named after Hun Sen.
The party has just three credible rivals, one named after and led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
The two other main parties are lead by Kem Sokha, a former human rights activist, and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose former party booted him out for alleged incompetence – in part because of some political shenanigans orchestrated by Hun Sen’s side.
But because the three parties lack a united strategy and instead pursue their own separate agendas for votes, they’re unlikely to loosen the grip of Hun Sen’s party, said Kuol Panha, director of Comfrel, an independent Cambodian election monitoring group.