Cambodians head to the polls two days from now as Prime Minister Hun Sen looks to extend his 28-year rule in one of Asia’s poorest countries that has yet to see a peaceful transfer of power.
His Cambodian People’s Party faces an opposition led by Sam Rainsy, who returned July 19 to cheering crowds after a royal pardon for charges he says were politically motivated and kept him in exile for four years. The CPP has run the country since Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, with Hun Sen serving as prime minister in various coalitions since 1985, making him Asia’s second-longest serving leader.
The victor will need to boost growth in Southeast Asia’s third-smallest economy after Timor-Leste and Laos fast enough to create jobs for one of the region’s youngest countries, where more than half the 15 million people are under the age of 24. Hun Sen, 60, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla who later fought against the regime, has faced criticism for persecuting political foes while overseeing a period of stability that has attracted companies such as General Electric Co., Sumitomo Corp. and DuPont Co.
“The most likely scenario is that he’s returned with a smaller majority, which will give a signal to the government that improving governance standards are expected by voters,” said Douglas Clayton, founder and chief executive officer of Leopard Capital, which has investments in Cambodia. “The voter base is changing as younger people enter the voting age, and Cambodia can’t stand still.”
One of the biggest impediments to reaping investments from high-technology industries is improving the skillset of the young workforce, according to Daniel Mitchell, a board member of the American Cambodian Business Council who has done business in the country for more than a decade.
“Youth unemployment continues to be an issue -- it has more potential for social unrest than any of the human rights issues,” said Mitchell, chief executive officer of SRP International Group Ltd., an investment and advisory firm. “Longer term this is one that has the government’s attention -- this is the one that people will vote on.”
About 9.7 million voters who are at least 18 years old will pick between eight parties to fill 123 seats in the lower house, according to the National Election Committee. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Hun Sen’s party won 90 of 123 seats in the last election in 2008, which the U.S. called an “improvement” over previous votes. Government spokesman Phay Siphan earlier this month said he’s “100 percent” certain the CPP will return to power even as the opposition is poised to add to its existing 29 seats.
King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned Sam Rainsy, 64, earlier this month following a request from Hun Sen. While the move helped neutralize criticism over Sam Rainsy’s exile, he is banned from standing in the election because he failed to register as a candidate in time, Xinhua reported July 22.
In an interview last month, Sam Rainsy warned of violence if fraud taints the election. He has sought to capitalize on increasing disputes over workers rights, the environment and land clearing by pledging to double the minimum monthly wage to $150 for factory workers and increase civil servant salaries.
Hun Sen said last month the country’s garment and textile factories, which employ about 450,000 people, could shift to nearby countries like Laos and Myanmar if workers protest for higher wages. The industry accounted for about 80 percent of the country’s exports last year, according to data from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
Cambodia’s economy grew 7.2 percent last year on higher consumption and investment, the Asian Development Bank said in April. Gross domestic product is forecast to expand at the same pace this year and 7.5 percent in 2014 as the U.S. and Europe buy more Cambodia-made garments and footwear, the ADB said.
While credible opinion polls are lacking in the country, a majority canvassed by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute in a survey published in May said they were better off than in 2008. The poll of 2,000 people conducted Jan. 12 to Feb. 2 had a margin of error of 2.2 percent.
The survey found that 79 percent of respondents thought the country was heading in the right direction, up from 77 percent in February 2008, because more roads and schools were built. The 21 percent who said the country was heading in the wrong direction cited corruption, illegal immigration and nepotism as reasons, according to the poll.
Land disputes and forced evictions “continue unabated” and have led to clashes, the United Nations human rights office said in a report last year. Many activists and journalists who defend human rights fear for their lives, it said.
While Hun Sen faces opposition among more educated people in bigger cities, he’s popular enough in rural areas to win another term, according to David Chandler, an emeritus professor at Australia’s Monash University.
“The CPP has the money, the organization and the people in place, plus the backing up of the police and army if they need,” Chandler said. “People vote for the party that gives them something, and Sam Rainsy hasn’t given them anything.”