Nationalist pride sweeping through Cambodia triggered by a border dispute with Thailand appeared to strengthen the popularity of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of parliamentary elections today.
The election has been upstaged by a military confrontation with Thailand over contested land near a historic Hindu temple, which the Cambodian government says has triggered “an imminent state of war” between the two Southeast Asian neighbors.
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister for the past 23 years, was already expected to win re-election before the dispute erupted on July 15. But inflamed passions over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple and Hun Sen’s firm stance against Thailand have galvanized undecided voters in his favor, analysts say.
“Now everybody is behind the government because it’s the only institution that can deal with the Thai government. That means more votes for [Hun Sen],” said Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor.
More than 8 million of Cambodia’s 14 million people are eligible to vote in today’s election. Eleven parties are vying for seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government to run the country for the next five years.
“The border issue near Preah Vihear temple is a sensitive one that has aroused nationalist feelings of the people. So, they have been lately paying more attention to it than to the election,” said Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian election monitoring group Comfrel.
Internationally, Hun Sen has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But he argues that his tenure has ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign from 1975 to 1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people.
Under his free-market policies, Cambodia’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 percent in each of the past three years.
Voters say their top concern for this election has been the Preah Vihear temple, which sits high on a cliff along Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. It has fueled nationalist sentiment in both countries on and off for decades.