BANGKOK — Voters in Cambodia go to the polls Sunday to take part in what has become a familiar ritual – the re-election of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in the job for 28 years and says he hopes to rule for at least another decade.
With money, power and guns behind it, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party is expected to win another comfortable majority in the National Assembly, where it holds 90 of the 123 seats. But unity in the opposition ranks, along with an explosion of young Cambodians coming of voting age, hold out the possibility of the doughty Cambodia National Rescue Party at least slowing Hun Sen's juggernaut.
In theory, the country's 9.6 million registered voters could turn Hun Sen and his party out of office. In practice, the party's crony-funded wealth, control of the levers of government and the bureaucracy, the backing of the military and police and party domination of the media means that it can manipulate the election process at any stage.
"This is not an election where the outcome is in doubt or the CPP would give up power if it lost the vote," said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "To talk about it as a contest misrepresents the reality on the ground, which is that this is a charade."
Still, its dominance at the polls over the past quarter century hasn't been achieved through underhandedness alone.
The party is popular in the countryside, where villagers benefit from infrastructure built by the government – for which the CPP takes credit – and election-season distributions of rice and other staples. Plus, many Cambodians see Hun Sen as having finally brought peace after decades of civil war and the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime that killed 1.7 million people in the late 1970s.
"The CPP has always been stronger in the countryside," Adams said. "People appreciate the modest economic benefits they receive and given the low standard of living, may see small things as big improvements."
As much as he is a strongman, Hun Sen is also a skilled politician who knows the importance of managing his image – and that of the opposition.
He demonstrated his savvy last week, when he arranged for a royal pardon to clear the way for his chief rival, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, to return from self-imposed exile in order to campaign for the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The gesture looked magnanimous, especially in light of the rapturous welcome Rainsy received from as many as 100,000 opposition supporters in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Hun Sen said he acted in the interests of national unity and reconciliation, and to promote democracy. More credibly, he was responding to the international pressure for fair polls that rears its head only when campaigning begins, allowing Hun Sen to calibrate his generosity so the opposition won't have enough time to take advantage of the opening.
It's a tactic Hun Sen has used before, bearing down – in the past quite brutally – on his opponents, only to ease up just ahead of elections. Typically, he tightens the screws again after the polls.
Hun Sen isn't without his vulnerabilities, however, and they are more in focus this time than in the last election in 2008, when a border dispute with Thailand cloaked him in patriotism. Corruption and land-grabbing by the rich and well-connected are tinderbox issues that pit Hun Sen's populist political instincts against his loyalty to cronies.
His continued assault on political enemies also has had the unintended side effect of uniting a formerly fractured opposition.
"Hun Sen has in many respects appeared stronger than ever," said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a Cambodia scholar at the University of Cambridge. "Yet the systematic weakening of the opposition has resulted in an increasingly polarized political scene, prompting the opposition to overcome its internal divisions which had previously been its curse."
The newest challenge Hun Sen faces, and one he is powerless to control, is demographics.
The under-30 crowd now represents more than half the electorate, and that will only grow in future elections as just over 50 percent of the population of almost 15 million people is under the age of 25.
While all parties court the young, many believe these shifting demographics favor the opposition.
For the half of the country that didn't live through the Khmer Rouge and its brutality, the stability Hun Sen offers is not as important as issues like economic growth, education, less corruption and better government services.
They are keen to taste the fruits of globalization, many of them material, and Rainsy paints himself as able to deliver them because he is a modern, Westernized technocrat, removed from traditional ways of corruption and cronyism.
While Hun Sen is sure to prevail at Sunday's vote, he may find that it is the last time his grip on the ballot box is iron clad, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
"Given that most of the current ruling elite came to power some 30 years ago, and the baby boomer, post-Khmer Rouge generation will soon be in their early 30s, change is definitely in the air," he said.
Peck has covered Southeast Asia for more than 20 years, including several previous Cambodian elections.