Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned voters who destroyed their ballots in the recent election to turn themselves in or face legal consequences.

Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly four decades, claimed victory in the one-sided election, which was virtually uncontested. According to unofficial results, Hun Sen’s party won 120 seats, and a royalist party secured five seats.

The election outcome was not in doubt. The main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, was disqualified from running for allegedly failing to submit the correct paperwork. Hun Sen has been accused of rigging previous elections, and the latest poll was widely seen as a sham. Ahead of the vote, the Cambodian government cracked down on opposition voices, including legal challenges to prevent voter boycotts. Spoiled ballots became one of the few remaining ways to protest against the regime.

In a speech on Monday, Hun Sen said that those who had spoiled their ballots would be investigated and could face up to five years in prison. Any destroyed ballots were seen as a sign of support for the banned Candlelight party.

Prior to the election, there were concerns that people might face cultural or social pressure to vote, with some employers even checking whether their staff had voted by looking for the ink-stained finger, indicating that they had cast their vote. The Cambodian government denied these allegations.

Hun Sen is expected to hand over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet, who is his anointed successor. Hun Manet has been endorsed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as the future prime minister. He has a strong educational background, including graduating from the US military academy at West Point, New York University, and the University of Bristol. Manet is popular among the military and has a strong following among young people.
It is believed that Hun Manet’s governance style is similar to his father. He has shown a low tolerance for dissent and cultivated close ties with China.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, expressed concern that Hun Manet would be “another authoritarian leader who crushes dissent and abuses human rights.”
Hun Manet has said he would continue his father’s policies, including economic development and stability. However, he has also expressed a desire to improve human rights and democracy in Cambodia.

The EU, US, and other Western countries did not send observers to the election, as they considered it lacking the conditions to be considered free and fair. Instead, observers from Russia, China, and Guinea-Bissau were present during the voting process, with Hun Sen casting his vote in his home district outside Phnom Penh.

Western countries’ decision not to send observers to the election is a blow to the CPP’s credibility. It also raises questions about the results’ legitimacy. A coalition of 17 election watchdogs and human rights groups, including the Asian Network for Free Elections and the International Federation for Human Rights, expressed “profound concern” about the poll conduct. The coalition said that the election was “not free or fair” and that it was “a major setback for democracy in Cambodia.” The coalition called on the Cambodian government to hold a new election that meets international standards.

Rong Chhun advocates amid controversial election

Rong Chhun, the vice-president of the banned Candlelight party, spoke out about the shrinking space for freedom of expression and the media in Cambodia. He emphasised the importance of continuing in politics despite personal risks to work towards a democratic society, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Chhun, a prominent labour rights activist and former union leader, was arrested in July 2020 for alleged incitement over comments he made about the Vietnamese border. He was released in November 2021 after serving 15 months in prison.

Approximately 9.7 million Cambodians were registered to vote in the election to elect members of the 125-seat National Assembly. Of those registered voters, 84% cast their ballots, according to the National Election Committee (NEC). The NEC is a government-appointed body responsible for organising and overseeing elections in Cambodia. Candlelight Party disputed NEC figures and said voter turnout was closer to 60%. According to unofficial results compiled by provincial authorities, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was claimed to have won 120 seats, while the royalist FUNCINPEC party won five seats.