Cambodia will hold local elections Sunday, but the political opposition has already taken a beating in a campaign that is viewed as a precursor to the country’s 2018 general elections. Twelve political parties are technically in the race, with nearly 90,000 candidates competing to represent 1,646 communes, or clusters of villages, across Cambodia. However, the election is mainly a contest between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which Prime Minister Hun Sen has led for three decades, and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition group.
Instead of being an indicator of a thriving democracy, observers say that the polls are the latest sign of Hun Sen’s longstanding effort to rid the country of his political opponents.
According to Phil Robertson, head of Human Rights Watch for Southeast Asia, Hun Sen used numerous tactics over the past year to ensure his party doesn’t lose votes like it did in the disputed general elections of 2013, when the CPP received the lowest number of votes in the party’s history. “There was violence and intimidation in every election cycle, but 2013 was the exception. Hun Sen decided to use a different approach and give away things, mostly money,” Robertson says. “But the takeaway from 2013 was that there should be no more Mr. Nice Guy.”