Former guerilla fighter turned strongman premier Hun Sen has long evoked the horrors of the Khmer Rouge – and his role in helping to liberate the country – to shore up his popularity.
But with more than one-third of Cambodia’s nearly 9.6 million eligible voters born after the end of the “Killing Fields” era of the late 1970s, there are signs that the strategy is losing potency.
For first-time voter Try Mouy Hong, election campaigning based on the atrocities committed by the hardline communist regime holds little appeal.
“I don’t think (Hun Sen) benefits from going on about it. It discredits him,” she said.
“They always claim that Cambodia is a democracy now, but then they say if the ruling party loses there will be a civil war. It is not a good leader who says this,” the 21-year-old student said.
“Corruption is the biggest issue for me — and for most young people. I want a party to improve the quality of education in the country and raise the salaries of teachers and officials,” she added.
Chhim Vitadane, 25, said she planned to vote for the party “that will change and develop our country”.
“It was hard for people who lived during that time (the Khmer Rouge era) but we should forget it. We need to develop our country not live with bad feelings and negative emotions.”
The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of up to two million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Hun Sen was himself a Khmer Rouge cadre but defected from the murderous regime.
He fled to Vietnam in 1977 and returned the following year with other Cambodian defectors and Vietnamese troops who pushed the Khmer Rouge into the country’s far northwest, where fighting lasted for another two decades.
Voters support Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) because “they consider us the party that liberated their lives from the claw of the monster,” senior CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun told AFP.
The strongman leader is seeking to extend his nearly three decades in power in Sunday’s election, faced with an opposition galvanised by the recent return from exile of its newly pardoned leader Sam Rainsy.
The government is regularly accused of tramping on human rights and clamping down on political opposition.
Weeks ahead of the election, Cambodian parliament passed a law criminalising the denial of Khmer Rouge atrocities — a move the opposition claimed was a political attack following a smear campaign.
The law was pushed by Hun Sen after a recording emerged of a senior opposition figure purportedly describing a notorious Khmer Rouge prison as a Vietnamese invention.
In April the outspoken premier warned the country risked plunging back into civil war if the opposition took power.
The Khmer Rouge period has been heavily politicised “by all parties,” said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches the country’s bloody history.
But it is an increasingly ineffective tactic as young people no longer pay attention to such campaign rhetoric, he said.
“At the next election, in next five years, politicians will realise this is no longer a tool to gain support,” he said.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has made much of the cosy ties between the ruling party and its war-time benefactor, Hanoi – playing on many Cambodians’ fears of their larger, wealthier neighbour.
But it says it has now abandoned this approach and is campaigning on a platform including a pledge to end corruption and raise the salaries of public officials.
“The young voters don’t know too much, don’t have too much interest in the Khmer Rouge era anymore,” said Kem Monovithya, deputy director of public affairs at the CNRP.
“What they are interested in is today and tomorrow. They’re interested in a party and candidates that are talking about the future, what they can do for their future, not talking about history, or the past, that they cannot relate to.”
Reflecting the country’s youthful population, there has been an explosion of political discussion on Facebook and other social media that has shaken up election campaigning in a country where the mainstream media is largely controlled by the ruling party.
“Less than seven percent of the population is online, mostly in Phnom Penh. But a lot of young people are engaging with the election campaigns on Facebook, especially the opposition,” said Koul Panha, head of poll monitor The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).
“It could make a difference. It brings a new dynamic to the election.”