PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Cambodian leader Hun Sen’s eldest son and chosen successor hailed “victory day” in a final rambunctious rally Friday, ahead of one-sided elections that his father’s ruling party is guaranteed to win.
A crowd of tens of thousands on motorbikes, dressed in bright blue, gathered under grey skies in the early morning to hear Hun Manet’s brief speech before he roared off in a huge celebratory motorcade parade around the capital Phnom Penh.
It was the final rally before Sunday’s election, which has seen all meaningful opposition either disqualified or exiled, leaving voters no choice but to hand Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a majority in the 125-member parliament.
“Today is a victory day for us,” Hun Manet said under a giant poster of his father, urging supporters to vote for the ruling party.
“Only the CPP has the ability to lead Cambodia.”
“We will promote the national pride of our nation to the heights of the Angkor era,” he said as the rain began falling on the crowd, invoking the heyday of the Khmer empire, a dominant force in Southeast Asia from the ninth to the 14th century.
International observers have condemned the upcoming election’s lack of any credible opposition.
The Candlelight Party, the CPP’s only credible rival, was barred from running over registration technicalities.
“When the Candlelight Party cannot participate in the election, it is not going to be free and fair,” Rong Chhun, vice-president of the party, told AFP.
Without the Candlelight Party, voters had no choice but to back Hun Sen’s ruling party, he said.
“Our hope for a real democracy is fading away,” opposition supporter Vanna, 30, told AFP at a cafe.
He declined to give his full name, one of many ordinary citizens who are increasingly nervous about criticising the government.
“I think it is another very unfair election.”
Critics say Hun Sen’s 38-year rule has been shadowed by environmental destruction, entrenched corruption and uneven economic growth — with the country now a byword for the global online scamming industry.
But in recent years, the 70-year-old leader has begun to look to his legacy, wishing to cement control before handing over to Hun Manet.
The best candidate?
The Cambodian princeling, educated in the United States and Britain, has been more of a presence as his father begins to pull back.
At Friday’s rally, supporters with stickers on their cheeks expressed hope for Hun Manet’s leadership.
“I believe that he will not mistreat our people, and he will find whatever may be prosperous for Cambodia,” Chin Chhivleap, 34, told AFP.
“For me, Hun Manet is the best candidate for the PM because I don’t see anybody else better than him.”
Speaking under the shadow of construction cranes as a pony ridden by a supporter clopped, supporters said his education abroad would improve Cambodia.
But analysts are sceptical of any real changes under the 42-year-old, whenever he may take over — with Hun Sen reassuring voters he would continue guiding him.