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Can Cambodia's young voters end Hun Sen's long rule?

With an upcoming general election, young Cambodian's are becoming more politically active. If they can use their votes to create social change, however, remains to be seen.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country for 33 years, and in Sunday's general election, Hun and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) are expected to win again. For a younger generation of Cambodians, Hun is the only prime minister they have ever known.

Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in Southeast Asia. According to a study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, almost two-thirds of Cambodians are under the age of 30. This also has an effect on the electorate. According to the National Election Committee of Cambodia, over 3,886,000 voters are aged between 18 and 35 years old, which is more than 46 percent of total registered voters.

This makes the political opinions of young Cambodians hugely important for the country's politics and development. However, many young Cambodians are not enthusiastic about the election.

Read more: Cambodian activists fear for the future ahead of national elections

Noan Sereiboth, a 29-year-old political blogger in Phnom Penh, told DW that he stays updated with news on the political situation in Cambodia and is closely following the upcoming election, but admitted that he is not expecting to be surprised by the outcome.

"It is not so exciting anymore, because we have kind of already predicted the result of the election," he said. 

Sereiboth said that although there has been some development in certain industries in Cambodia, there are still needs that are being unmet, like medical care, education, public transport and fighting corruption.

"There are still problems and the ruling party has not fulfilled what we need," he said. "We need more determination."

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A low youth turnout?

Samoeurth Seavmeng from Politikofee, a youth community forum that holds discussions on political and social issues in Cambodia, told DW that she uses social media to express her ideas about the elections, along with political and social issues in Cambodia.

"My friends on Facebook can reflect and make conclusions from my posts," said Seavmeng.

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International of Cambodia, told DW that there has been a lower number of young Cambodians participating in the election campaign this year.

"Compared to previous elections [in 2013 and 2017], the dynamics, enthusiasm and numbers are much less," said Kol. He predicts CPP to win a two-thirds majority.

"There will be a lower voter turnout and higher number of invalid votes than in the last elections," he said.

Read more: Cambodia's Hun Sen demands closure of key human rights group

Regarding youth turnout in the 2018 elections, Seavmeng said, "I think it's extremely important. There are many of them and most are educated and can access a lot of information." 

"I think they are capable of deciding who deserves their vote," she added, saying she was still unsure about the election result.

"What I can predict is that, unlike previous elections, the number of eligible voters decrease."

Role of social media

According to a 2016 study by Development Innovations Cambodia, a USAID-funded project, Facebook has become Cambodians' most important source of news about the country. 

Cambodian politicians are also heavy users of Facebook. The exiled former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader, Sam Rainsy, uses social media as a tool to communicate from abroad to a mass-audience in Cambodia.

And given its effectiveness in reaching voters, Hun Sen also takes advantage of social media, regularly updating his Facebook wall with posts about his political duties and live broadcasting of his public events.

Read more: Khmer Rouge genocide in the minds of Cambodian youth

However, Seavmeng noted that youth engagement in political discussions on social media has decreased amid stories of people getting arrested after posting negative comments about the government.

In 2015, a university student was arrested and sentenced after he called for people to join his "color revolution" campaign. Soon after, three more people were arrested after they insulted the king. 

Sereiboth said he is concerned about the spread of fake news on Facebook.

"Facebook is an important communication tool in Cambodia and many citizens place too much trust in it."

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