The Cambodian Candidate

Letter from Phnom Penh

Supporters of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh Pring Samrang / Courtesy Reuters

The Cambodian national election this Sunday will almost certainly propel the country’s sitting prime minister, the 61-year-old Hun Sen, into his fourth decade of rule. Asia’s longest-serving elected leader, Hun Sen has held power since 1985, and his Cambodian People’s Party enjoys all the advantages of decades-long incumbency: pliant government institutions, favorable media coverage, and powerful tycoon backers. The CPP has increased its share of the vote at every national poll since 1993 and currently holds 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly.

In Cambodia, elections have never been truly free or fair. Nor have they been peaceful. But even by Cambodian standards, circumstances this year heavily favor the ruling party. What independent election monitors delicately label “irregularities” abound. According to a recent audit of voter lists, nine percent of voter names have disappeared from the national rolls, and one in ten belongs to voters who do not exist. The CPP also boasts genuine popular support; much of the population feels grateful for the thousands of roads, bridges, schools, and Buddhist pagodas built under the party’s rule.

Cambodia’s travails fail to attract much attention in Washington nowadays, but its impending election has shone a rare spotlight on Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule. In recent months, the U.S. State Department rebuked the prime minister after his government ejected 28 opposition lawmakers from the parliament and ordered a ban -- since revoked under U.S. pressure -- on foreign radio broadcasts during the 31-day campaign period. Then, on June 7, U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) sponsored a resolution that would reduce U.S. aid to Cambodia if the State Department does not deem the upcoming election “credible and competitive.” Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–Calif.), a longtime Hun Sen critic whose California district is home to a large Cambodian diaspora community, recently described the prime minister as “a corrupt, vicious human being, who has held that country in his grip for decades.” “It’s

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