Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen displays his marked finger to show he has cast his vote at a polling station in Kandal province during the general elections on July 23, 2023. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)
The Biden administration says it’s suspending some foreign assistance programs in Cambodia after the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, claimed a landslide victory in the July 23 general election.
The CPP won 125 seats, while the royalist FUNCINPEC party won five, preliminary results from the National Election Commission show. FUNCINPEC was one of 16 parties that the CPP allowed to run against it, according to RFA. However, the CPP’s actions to suffocate any voices of political opposition with threats and other maneuvers meant that none of those parties were expected to seriously challenge the CPP.
The Candlelight Party, which was the country’s main opposition party standing as the sole challenger to the CPP, was disqualified in May by the CPP-appointed election commission for failing to submit the “proper” registration documents. Party officials said the disqualification was politically motivated; the Khmer United Great Nation Party also was disqualified.
Official results are expected to be released between Aug. 9 and Sept. 4, according to local reports.
U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller declared the country’s elections to be “neither free nor fair,” given the threats and harassment faced by political opposition, media, and civil institutions ahead of the voting.
“These actions denied the Cambodian people a voice and a choice in determining the future of their country,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Miller stated that Washington would impose visa restrictions on Cambodians whom it believed had undermined democracy, but he didn’t disclose the names of any individuals.
He urged the CPP to use its victory to improve the country’s international standing, including by restoring multiparty democracy, ending politically motivated trials, reversing convictions of government critics, and allowing independent news outlets to operate without interference.
In addition to the United States, the European Union and other Western countries had refused to send observers to the polls, saying ahead of Election Day that the election lacked the conditions to be considered free and fair. That left international officials from Russia, China, and Guinea–Bissau to monitor.
Hun Sen Plans for Son as Successor
Hun Sen, 70, holds the distinction of being the longest-serving leader in Asia, having ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades since 1998. He has previously indicated to Chinese state media that he plans to pass on the premiership to his eldest son, Hun Manet, within three weeks of his reelection.
Hun Manet, 45, is chief of Cambodia’s army. He is a West Point graduate with a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Bristol University in the United Kingdom.
During an interview with the local news agency Phnom Penh Post on July 21, Hun Sen said that he would reclaim the country’s leadership position if his son failed to meet the expectations set for the role.
“If my son fails to meet expectations … I would reassume my role as prime minister.”
When asked if his son might govern the communist-ruled country differently, Hun Sen responded with a laugh, stating, “In what way? Any such divergence would mean disrupting peace and undoing the achievements of the older generation.”
Executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition, Ros Sotha, told RFA from polling stations that he and his team were monitoring concerns voiced by voters about their options on the ballot.
“The unhappy reaction of the people seems to be due to the fact that the main opposition party is absent from the election,” he said.
Exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who co-founded the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has described the election as an “electoral farce,” noting that Cambodia has only had one fair election since 1975—the U.N.-supervised election in 1993, which saw the defeat of the CPP.
“They can achieve nothing beyond lending legitimacy to an electoral farce that, at best, distorts the popular will and, at worst, reverses it. This is the worst service that can be offered to the Cambodian people,” Mr. Rainsy wrote in an article published in Nikkei Asia on May 9.
He urged the international community to pay attention to the number of spoiled ballots in the election results in a Twitter post on July 23, noting that many locals were calling for the United Nations to step in on their ballots.
Mr. Rainsy has lived in exile in France since 2015 to avoid serving a prison sentence for multiple defamation charges. A court dissolved his CNRP party in 2017 after it was accused of plotting to topple Hun Sen’s government. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2021.
The Candlelight Party is a reformed version of the Sam Rainsy Party, which also includes former CNRP members. The party has been the target of numerous attacks in Cambodia. In October 2022, a Candlelight Party supporter was reportedly shot dead by an unknown assailant in broad daylight.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.