Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) kisses a ballot before voting at a polling station at Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 23, 2023. Credit - Heng Sinith—AP Photo
Thirty years ago, some 22,000 police, military, and administrative personnel flew to Cambodia for one of the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping missions. After decades of bloodied fighting between the Khmer Rouge communist rebels and government forces, the warring factions signed an accord for the U.N. to prepare the Southeast Asian nation for “free and fair” elections in a step towards democracy.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, then 41, was in the middle of it all. Having fought on both sides of the war, Hun Sen, who ascended to power in 1985, was a key player in the peace accords. But when the elections did not turn in his favor, Hun Sen initially refused to accept the results and threatened the secession of certain provinces from Cambodia. He eventually accepted a coalition government in which he was made Second Prime Minister.
But the move toward democracy in Cambodia was short-lived: in 1997, Hun Sen staged a coup against his coalition partner and took back the premiership a year later. Since then, Hun Sen has tightened his grip on power and been accused of a gamut of human rights violations, from arbitrary killings to the torture of political dissidents to clampdowns on the press and more.
Now, after the latest general election on Sunday, which the U.S. State Department described as “neither free nor fair,” a 70-year-old Hun Sen has declared an unsurprising “landslide” victory and is poised to extend his authoritarian rule.
The steep democratic decline in Cambodia has been a flashpoint for activists and human rights groups, who have called for foreign condemnation of Hun Sen’s regime.
Here’s what to know about the situation.
Why the election outcome was a foregone conclusion
On July 23, some 85% of registered Cambodian voters turned out to the polls to choose among 18 political parties on their ballots. But only one was truly viable—the ruling Cambodia People’s Party—after the Hun Sen administration decimated all the major opposition parties.
In 2017, a highly-politicized Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party and barred them from contesting in future polls. And in May, the Candlelight Party, which made some inroads in local elections last year, was disqualified by the national election committee over dubious registration technicalities.
Hun Sen’s crackdown also extended to the media. In February, he shuttered one of the last remaining vestiges of an independent press in the Southeast Asian country, Voice of Democracy, over unflattering reports about his son Hun Manet. And earlier this week, Cambodian authorities ordered internet service providers to block another independent public information portal and other media outlets.
Oppositionists tried to be creative with fighting back against Hun Sen’s leadership, but they were only been met with further suppression. Former Candlelight Party leader Sam Rainsy, who is now in self-exile amid his criminal convictions under the Hun Sen government, called on voters to spoil their ballots in the upcoming election. In response, the Cambodian government amended election laws to penalize politicians who encourage election boycotts. Hun Sen also warned voters that there may be “legal consequences” should they decide to spoil their ballots in protest.
“Hun Sen has already eliminated all real opposition and it’ll be a sham election with the CPP possibly winning every vote,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told TIME last week.
Hours after voting closed, Hun Sen’s Telegram channel posted that the CPP won 120 of the 125 MP seats, while the royalist FUNCINPEC party took the remaining five. Official results of the polls are expected to come early August.
What the future holds
Rights groups and advocates have called on the international community, including the U.S., to exert pressure on the Southeast Asian government to push for democratic changes. But many countries continue to work with Hun Sen’s government—such as participating in the Cambodia-led Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) summit last year, attended by a number of international leaders including President Joe Biden—resorting typically to just strongly-worded denunciations and limited sanctions against Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule.
“What’s setting in a state of exhaustion in some sense, in that the West has devoted a lot of time and energy and resources to building democracy in Cambodia since the intervention in the early 90s,” Lee Morgenbesser, a Southeast Asia politics expert at Griffith University, says. “And to get where we are today and really have nothing to show for it—I don’t think they’re willing to try and make a bigger push now.”
Morgenbesser says the West may be waiting for a domestic change in leadership before trying to intervene anew.
Many observers view the CPP’s contrived landslide victory this month as an effort to pave the way for the ascendancy of Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, whom Hun Sen declared in 2021 to be his successor. Hun Manet, 45, is an entirely different beast from his father: he has an extensive Western education, and has quickly risen through the ranks in the Cambodian military and secured key ministerial posts.
But to be prime minister, Hun Manet must first secure a seat in parliament, which he looks set to achieve after Sunday’s vote. Still, Kurlantzick says it’s not a secure transition. “There are many politicians and tycoons who don’t have that much respect for Hun Manet and he has not any popular following at all,” Kurlantzick says. “[Hun Manet] will probably need to lighten up on the repression in reality were he to be PM, or face severe street protests.”
Hun Manet’s biggest threat, however, may come from his father himself, Kurlantzick adds. “Hun Sen is complicating matters by saying he may want to stay around another four, maybe eight years, undermining his own transition.”