After 28 years of rule by Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving prime minister, the rallying cry for Cambodia’s opposition ahead of next week’s election is obvious, and it appears to be attracting an unprecedented number of voters.
“Change, change!” senior opposition politician Kem Sokha shouted through a microphone to a crowd of several hundred villagers in the southern province of Takeo. “July 28 is the day that we will end this dictatorship regime.”
Hun Sen, a charismatic former commander in the genocidal Khmer Rouge, has built up a formidable electoral machinery through his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that easily outguns the opposition. Adding to his advantages are a compliant media, the CPP’s deep pockets, and an election system that is prone to government meddling.
Hun Sen, 60, is a master of cultivating patronage networks and alliances within the CPP. The authoritarian leader has vowed to stay in power until his planned retirement in his mid-70s, and appears intent on building a political dynasty by promoting his sons to top positions in the CPP and the army. Still, the newly unified opposition hopes to mount its strongest challenge to the CPP since democracy was fully restored in 1998.
Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has become one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, helped by a burgeoning garment export industry and growing political and investment ties with China.
Yet, in rural areas, where more than 90 per cent of Cambodians live and which are a backbone of CPP support, there is growing anger over huge land concessions awarded to foreign companies and which have benefited close political allies of Hun Sen.
Om Vanthoeun, a 61-year- old farmer who attended Kem Sokha’s rally in the village of Tuol Tachen, said he was most concerned about land grabs and what he called an influx of immigrants from Vietnam.
“I just want change, even a little child wants change,” said Mr Om, who plans to vote for the opposition despite what he said was intimidation by his local CPP candidate.
Most political analysts believe the CPP is on course to retain its majority but may lose ground from the 90 seats it currently holds in the 123-seat parliament.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has recently returned after four years in exile in France. Mr Rainsy was given a royal pardon that removed the threat of a jail term, amid mounting pressure from the United States and other foreign donors to ensure the election is fair.
CPP MP Sok Eysan denied that Hun Sen was favouring his sons by moving them into increasingly powerful positions.
“The party has a policy of promoting the role of youths including some who were educated in the West and locally,” he said.
Hun Sen’s youngest son, 30-year-old Hun Many, is running for parliament for the first time in this election. He is already the deputy chief of cabinet and the head of a national student movement. Second son, General Hun Manith, is the deputy head of Cambodia’s intelligence unit.
The eldest, General Hun Manet, is head of the National Counterterrorism Taskforce.