PHNOM PENH: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, said Wednesday he will resign and hand power to his eldest son after almost four decades of hardline rule.
The former Khmer Rouge cadre has run the kingdom since 1985, eliminating all opposition to his power, with opposition parties banned, challengers forced to flee and freedom of expression stifled.
His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a landslide victory in an election on Sunday with no meaningful opposition, taking 82 percent of the vote, paving the way for a dynastic succession to his eldest son that some critics have compared to North Korea.
“I would like to ask for understanding from the people as I announce that I will not continue as prime minister,” the 70-year-old said in a special broadcast on state television.
Election authorities disqualified the only serious challenger, the Candlelight Party, on a technicality in advance of the election, and the CPP is expected to win all but five lower house seats.
The government hailed the 84.6 percent turnout as evidence of the country’s “democratic maturity” but Western powers including the United States and European Union condemned the poll as neither free nor fair.
Hun Sen has trailed the handover to his son for a year and a half, and the 45-year-old played a leading role in campaigning for Sunday’s vote.
But the outgoing leader has made it clear that he still intends to wield influence, even after he steps down, scotching the notion the country could change direction.
Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has tacked close to Beijing, benefiting from huge Chinese investment and infrastructure projects, including the redevelopment of a naval base that has alarmed Washington.
China welcomed Sunday’s election, with President Xi Jinping sending Hun Sen a personal message of congratulation.
But the flood of Chinese money has brought problems, including a rash of casinos and online scam operations staffed by trafficked workers in appalling conditions.
Critics say his rule has also been marked by environmental destruction and entrenched graft.
Cambodia ranks 150th out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. In Asia, only Myanmar and North Korea rank lower.
Rights groups accuse Hun Sen of using the legal system to crush any opposition to his rule — including activists and troublesome union leaders as well as politicians.
Scores of opposition politicians have been convicted and jailed during his time in power and the law was changed ahead of Sunday’s election to make it illegal to call for voters to spoil ballots.
Five days before polling day, authorities banned exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy from running for office for 25 years for urging people to void their ballot papers.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha was in March convicted of treason and sentenced to 27 years in prison over an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s government. He is currently serving his sentence under house arrest.