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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hun Sen Faces Few Challengers as Cambodia Vote Nears

Hun Sen Faces Few Challengers as Cambodia Vote Nears

June 16, 2008
Source: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — With nearly six weeks until Cambodia's general election, almost everyone says they already know the result.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, Southeast Asia's longest-serving leader besides the sultan of Brunei, has spent much of his 23 years in power ruthlessly undermining his political rivals, who are now so weakened that analysts say none have much hope of success.

Cambodia has 57 parties, but only 11 are running in the July 27 poll -- less than half the number that contested the last national election five years ago.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) towers above them all.

"Who will win? The CPP. No doubt about that. Even without taking into consideration threats, pressure and vote buying, the CPP is the one with the people on the ground," said Cambodian political analyst Chea Vannath.

The CPP was installed by communist Vietnam in 1979, after Hanoi invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge -- the genocidal regime behind Cambodia's infamous "Killing Fields."

While the CPP has dropped its communist ideology, it retains a ubiquitous presence across the country and a tight grip on every level of government.

"Government and administrative offices throughout the country are very extensive and tightly controlled," said Lao Mong Hay, senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Opposition members have already accused Hun Sen of buying off their supporters by offering them attractive jobs, a charge the premier has brushed off.

"They say that we are buying people. We are the ruling party -- we have the right to appoint them to positions of power," Hun Sen said last week, during one of his daily televised speeches given at events big and small across the country.

Hun Sen, 55, became prime minister in 1985 and has single-mindedly focused on staying in power, publicly vowing to remain in office until he turns 90.

He actually lost his first election to a royalist party in UN-backed polls in 1993, but bargained his way into becoming a "second prime minister" and then reasserted total control in a 1997 coup.

Hundreds of people were killed in the run-up to elections the following year. Protests against Hun Sen's victory were put down violently.

The last national election in 2003 was far less violent, but plunged the kingdom into a year of political stalemate as parties wrangled over forming a coalition.

The party's current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec, has been hobbled by infighting and the ouster of its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who has formed his own eponymous party.

With their ranks divided, analysts say the royalists appear spent as a political force.

The main opposition Sam Rainsy Party is expected to win few votes outside the capital. Hun Sen rival Kem Sokha has formed a new Human Rights Party that will be cutting its teeth in the polls.

Some 8.1 million people are registered to vote at 15,000 polling stations, under the eyes of more than 13,000 domestic and international observers.

During his rule, Hun Sen has steered the impoverished country out of the ashes of civil war and grown the economy by opening up to trade and tourism.

Garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth, but Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest countries. Some 35 percent of its 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Spiralling inflation has raised concerns about CPP's management of the economy.

"You can see the price of gasoline goes up every day," analyst Chea Vannath said. "I'm sure it will be one of the main concerns."

But he predicted Hun Sen would nonetheless romp to victory.

"The Cambodian people are traumatized by past experiences, so they don't show up on the street," she said.

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