PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A look at key issues in Cambodia’s general election on Sunday, with 8.3 million people registered to vote for 125 seats in the National Assembly:
Twenty parties registered to contest the polls, but Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is the only serious contender. With a handful of exceptions, the other parties are seen as doing the government’s bidding by running to give the illusion of a free and fair choice.
The party that was expected to mount a strong challenge, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by court order on a complaint that it conspired to overthrow the government, a decision widely seen as politically motivated. Leaders of the disbanded party, which came close to pulling off a surprise victory in the last general election in 2013, are urging a boycott of the vote.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Hun Sen insists he intends to stay in his post for two more five-year terms, saying chaos may result if he is blocked. He claims his opponents want to launch a “color revolution,” suggesting that their promotion of liberal democracy could lead to the sort of violent turmoil that roiled the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine.
His campaign promises to continue the strong economic growth he has presided over, which he says will be applied to improve infrastructure, especially in the poverty-stricken countryside. He also has promoted higher wages and more benefits for workers in the garment sector, the country’s largest earner that traditionally supports the opposition.
Hun Sen’s critics, led by the now-disbanded main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, say Cambodia is suffering from years of land grabs, illegal logging, cronyism, corruption and a culture of impunity fostered by a politicized justice system. The suppression of the opposition party and crackdowns on the media suggest a deeper slide into authoritarian rule.
About 16 million people live in the tropical Southeast Asian country slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Oklahoma. Once the center of a vast ancient empire — remnants of which survive at the famous Angkor Wat temple complex — the country became a French protectorate in the 19th century, and gained its independence from France in 1953.
By the late 1960s, it was ensnared by the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, leading to political upheaval and a 1970-75 civil war that brought the communist Khmer Rouge into power for almost four years of genocidal rule that ended only in 1979 with a Vietnamese invasion.
Ten years of Vietnamese occupation followed along with a persistent civil war spearheaded from the jungle by the ousted Khmer Rouge. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords started the process leading to a democratic transition from the Vietnamese-backed communist regime under Hun Sen, but the shattered country still struggles to overcome poverty and deep political divisions.