Critics have described the election as the least free and fair in decades due to exclusion of main opposition party.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Voting has started in Cambodia’s national elections where it is expected that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will earn an easy victory in what critics see as the least free and fair election in decades.
Polling stations were quiet in the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday morning as voting opened at 7am (00:00 GMT) for some 9.7 million people registered to vote across the country, among its population of 16 million.
In central Phnom Penh, police and election officials milled around the entrances to voting stations set up in high schools and on closed roads where large white tents had been sent up to welcome voters, but just a few trickled in to cast their votes in the opening hour of polling.
Alongside the incumbent and long-ruling CPP, 17 small parties are also running in the election, though none has the popular support to present a serious challenge to Hun Sen’s decades of authoritarian leadership. His party is expected to keep all 125 seats in the country’s national assembly.
The only credible opposition challenger – the Candlelight Party – was disqualified from participating in the vote due to a registration technicality in May, which critics blasted as yet another example of Hun Sen’s flattening of democratic participation in the country.
Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, cast their ballots shortly after polling stations opened in Takhmau, south of the capital, on Sunday morning where one of the prime minister’s residences is located.
As the longest-serving elected leader in Asia, Hun Sen has consolidated power in Cambodia over the past 38 years. This election victory is expected to pave the way for him to transfer power to his son, Hun Manet, who is head of the Cambodian army.
Opponents and human rights groups have blasted the election due to the lack of credible competition as well as Hun Sen’s strongman tactics that have silenced all opposition to his rule.
Ahead of voting, which runs through until 3pm local time (08:00 GMT) on Sunday, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said a “predictable outcome” from “an illegitimate process” could be expected on election day.
“Cambodia’s upcoming general election for the 125 members of the National Assembly will neither be genuine nor competitive, particularly given the arbitrary exclusion of the main political opposition,” the FIDH said in a statement.
The vote, FIDH said, is set to mirror the country’s last national election in 2018 when the banning of the then-popular Cambodia National Rescue Party from political life in the country allowed Hun Sen to win all seats in parliament.
As Hun Sen has focused on securing a succession of power to his son, Cambodia has seen a “disturbing uptick of human rights and election-related violations”, according to the organisation.
“The stage has been set for an entirely illegitimate election,” FIDH said.
Voter Tea Yumao, 50, said the election had gone more smoothly without the main opposition, which he accused of complicating the election process by highlighting problems with voting and continually “attacking” Hun Sen’s CPP.
“Whenever there’s opposition, it’s messy, causing problems,” he said.
A 44-year-old voter in Phnom Penh, who asked that her name not be used to protect her identity, told Al Jazeera that she was unhappy with the lack of competition in the election. But she looked forward to Hun Sen stepping aside to allow his son, Hun Manet, become prime minister.
“I only know that this year, it will be the son who takes over,” the woman said, adding that she hopes a new prime minister focuses on the economy and the poor.