PHNOM PENH – Cambodians head to general elections Sunday with Prime Minister Hun Sen favoured to retain leadership for another five-year term despite rival politicians running vigorous campaigns in a bid to oust the strongman.
Colourful and noisy rallies attended by thousands have been peacefully staged in the poll run-up, with election monitors assessing an overall improvement in the electoral environment since the last polls in 1998.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which under Hun Sen’s leadership has governed for nearly 20 years, is tipped to win the Sunday elections ahead of 21 other parties despite a campaign barely featuring the premier.
Hun Sen has bowed out supposedly to reduce the chance of electoral violence erupting in the volatile and impoverished country, a move annoying some of his top advisors who wanted him to take a few return swipes at his competitors.
The CPP has instead relied on its record of gradual development in its pursuit of victory.
Rivals such as Prince Norodom Ranariddh, chief of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, have not however held back their jibes against Hun Sen during the month-long campaign, which ended Friday ahead of a 24-hour cooling off period.
Ranariddh has spearheaded a strategy seeking to distinguish FUNCINPEC — the junior coalition partner in the outgoing cohabitation government — from the CPP in the eyes of the kingdom’s 6.3 million registered voters.
The tactic follows the royalists’ abysmal showing in local commune elections last February, which they blamed on their CPP connections.
Ranariddh has played on nationalist sentiment by launching broadsides against the Vietnamese in effectively thinly-veiled attacks on Hun Sen, the former guerrilla fighter who was installed by Vietnam after its forces ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Sam Rainsy, a Paris-educated former FUNCINPEC minister who now leads his self-named opposition party, has also chimed in playing the race card as well as charging that the CPP had squandered 400 million dollars a year through corruption.
His power base is seen as being the country’s educated and young, many of whom yearn for change after years under the CPP and do not harbour their parents’ loyalty to the ruling party, seen as responsible for the ousting of the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen, whose party is unlikely to win more than two-thirds of the 123 seats in the National Assembly — a requirement to govern outright — has already said he is willing to re-form a coalition with FUNCINPEC.
FUNCINPEC however has warned it will be more demanding than after the 1998 elections, when it was only the intervention of King Norodom Sihanouk that prompted the leaders to nut out an agreement to govern.
At the 1998 poll the CPP won 64 seats, FUNCINPEC 43, and the Sam Rainsy Party 15. The CPP is aiming to boost their share to 70, while FUNCINPEC is shooting for at least 50 and Sam Rainsy is targetting a minimum of 40.
Despite many analysts agreeing that CPP will likely scoop the results, no opinion polls are taken in Cambodia and the results are ultimately unpredictable.
The 1993 historic UN-brokered elections ended in upset when FUNCINPEC defeated the CPP.
Polls open at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) Sunday and close eight hours later. Initial trends are expected to emerge late Monday, with official preliminary results due August 8. A new government must be formed by October.
Despite the relatively peaceful lead-up to the elections, monitors have nevertheless warned that a widespread climate of fear pervades in the predominantly agricultural and Buddhist country.
Some analysts and diplomats harbour fears that the announcement of results may trigger protests by parties disappointed with results and alleging fraud.