PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Nationalist pride sweeping through Cambodia triggered by a border dispute with Thailand appeared to strengthen the popularity of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of parliamentary elections Sunday.
The election has been upstaged by a military confrontation with Thailand over contested land near a historic Hindu temple, which the Cambodian government says has triggered “an imminent state of war” between the two Southeast Asian neighbors.
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister for the past 23 years, was already expected to win re-election before the dispute erupted July 15. But inflamed passions over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple and Hun Sen’s firm stance against Thailand have galvanized undecided voters in his favor, analysts say.
“Now everybody is behind the government because it’s the only institution that can deal with the Thai government. That means more votes for (Hun Sen),” said Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor.
More than 8 million of Cambodia’s 14 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election. Eleven parties are vying for seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government to run the country for the next five years.
“The border issue near Preah Vihear temple is a sensitive one that has aroused nationalist feelings of the people. So, they have been lately paying more attention to it than to the election,” said Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian election monitoring group Comfrel.
Internationally, Hun Sen has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But he argues that his tenure has ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign from 1975-1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people.
Under his free-market policies, Cambodia’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 percent in each of the past three years.
Voters say their top concern for this election has been the Preah Vihear temple, which sits high on a cliff along Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. It has fueled nationalist sentiment in both countries on-and-off for decades.
“The election is necessary but has become a secondary concern for me now,” 27-year-old Sy Buntheng, a university student in the capital Phnom Penh, said ahead of the vote. “The encroachment by Thai troops on our land is the greatest national concern for me.”
The controversy revolves around 1.8 square miles of land that has been in dispute since French colonialists withdrew from Cambodia in the 1950s.
The International Court of Justice awarded the temple site to Cambodia in 1962, but anger flared in Thailand last month after Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej backed Cambodia’s successful bid for the temple to be listed as a U.N. World Heritage Site.
Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after Thai anti-government demonstrators assembled near the temple. Cambodia responded by sending its own troops to the border.
Negotiations between the two countries on the border row are scheduled to resume Monday, and if talks fail Cambodia says it will renew a call for the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue.