PHNOM PENH – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is poised to extend his 23-year grip on power Sunday in general elections unfolding with the kingdom locked in a military standoff with neighbouring Thailand.
Thousands of Cambodian and Thai forces have squared off for nearly two weeks around a small patch of land near the ruins of an ancient Khmer temple, sparking a nationalist fervour just as the nation geared up for the vote.
Hun Sen has taken a strong line in the conflict, accusing Thailand of ignoring international law and threatening regional peace by sending troops into the disputed zone around the Preah Vihear temple.
Campaigning has been largely overshadowed by national concerns over the temple, said Hang Puthea, who heads the election monitoring group Nicfec.
“People are more focused on the border issue at Preah Vihear temple than on the election,” he told AFP.
But the conflict hasn’t dented Hun Sen’s popularity going into the polls, and may have enhanced the stature of a man who has styled his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as the nation’s liberator from the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
Once a Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter, Hun Sen abandoned the movement to stake his political future with the CPP, which was installed as the ruling party after Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and created a client state to stop border incursions.
Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985, and has steadily and ruthlessly cemented his grip on power.
About 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. So far, most observers expect the polls to be largely free and fair.
In the current campaign, Hun Sen has been aided by his rivals’ missteps. His current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec party, has imploded under internal corruption scandals.
The leading opposition Sam Rainsy Party is expected to maintain its strength in the capital, but has made few inroads into rural Cambodia, where most voters live.
“There is no doubt that CPP will win the election,” said independent political analyst Chea Vannath. “The voters already made up their minds who they will vote for.”
Hun Sen is often accused of trampling human rights in his drive to hang on to power. He staged a bloody coup in 1997 to oust his partners in government, and hundreds were killed in campaigning for elections the following year.
The government controls almost all of Cambodia’s broadcast media, while the CPP maintains a vast network in rural Cambodia, inherited from the party’s communist days.
Election monitors say political violence has diminished greatly compared to past polls, while a booming economy is bringing enormous changes to one of the world’s poorest countries,
Some 35 percent of Cambodia’s 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents a day.
But economic growth has averaged about 11 percent over the last three years, creating a sense of optimism in a country that only emerged from decades of civil war in 1998.
More than three in four Cambodians believe their country is headed in the right direction, according to a February poll by the US-based International Republican Institute.
The government is welcoming foreign investment, especially in tourism, real estate and oil exploration, which could slowly reduce Cambodia’s dependence on foreign aid — which still finances half of the national budget.
Corruption remains a heavy burden on the country, but graft hasn’t emerged as a major campaign issue.
Analysts say the main question going into the polls is whether CPP will be able to increase the 71 seats it already holds in the 123-member parliament.