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Cambodia's Potemkin election -- what will come next?

Fresh challenges loom for long-ruling Hun Sen

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen smiles during a rally in Kandal province on July 4.   © Reuters

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to step down if his party does not prevail at national elections on July 29. It is not a difficult promise for the aging leader to make: Over the past year, his government has effectively removed all meaningful opposition from the field. It has arrested the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, on charges of treason; dissolved his party, the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party; rewritten the Constitution to safeguard the rule of the ruling Cambodian People's Party; and used threats of legal action to force Cambodia's once-vocal civil society into a self-preservational silence.

These efforts effectively ensure victory for the ruling party, and all but guarantee that Hun Sen will avoid the shock defeat that befell Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia's general election in May. With the July 29 election seemingly a foregone conclusion, attention now turns to what comes after. Hun Sen may be free from the friction of political opposition, but the recent crackdown has done little to resolve a number of challenges that will do much to determine the longer-term viability of his party's rule.

Hun Sen's first and most significant challenge is whether, after 33 years in power, he can keep step with the country's rapidly changing social realities. As a character remarks in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, set in Sicily on the eve of the Risorgimento: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." The same is true for Hun Sen, whose continued rule will hinge on his ability to meet the rising demands of the Cambodian public -- particularly the estimated two-thirds of the population under the age of 30.

Young voters have brought a new and unpredictable element to Cambodian politics. At the last election in 2013, they were at the forefront of the opposition CNRP, which scored 44% of the popular vote by tapping into a rising discontent about the land grabs and runaway corruption that have flourished under CPP rule. Unlike their older relatives, Cambodia's youth have no memory of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, nor of the long spell of civil war that followed. They are thus relatively immune to the CPP's claim that it brought deliverance from a hellish past.

They have also grown up in an era of relative, though frustrated, prosperity. Cambodia's economy has boomed under Hun Sen, growing at an average annual rate of 7.6% between 1994 and 2015. Yet the country currently ranks as the most corrupt in Southeast Asia, according to Transparency International's 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. Hun Sen's rule has therefore instilled rising expectations while lacking the means to fully satisfy them.

While Hun Sen could conceivably win back support by spreading the benefits of economic growth more widely, he faces a thorny contradiction: the individuals whose support underpins his rule -- from tycoons and political satraps to powerful members of the security forces -- are the source of the corruption and inequality that threaten to undermine it.

This contradiction bedeviled promises of reforms after the 2013 election, and has led Hun Sen to eschew structural change in favor of a downward redistribution of political patronage. At recent rallies, foreign media have reported that he has distributed 20,000 riel ($5) cash gifts to crowds of garment workers, a strong opposition party constituency, as an inducement to vote for his party. Whether these gifts will be a sufficient balm for a disaffected electorate, and whether more substantial reforms are possible, will be crucial to the long-term sustainability of CPP rule.

Hun Sen's second challenge is one that faces many dictators -- how to prepare a viable retirement plan. In recent speeches, he has promised to remain in power for "at least 10 more years." Hun Sen, 66 in August, is beginning to show signs of age, and questions about his health -- a hardy perennial in Cambodia -- are becoming more pressing. The likeliest scenario is that he will pass power to one of his sons, probably his eldest, Hun Manet, a presentable and well-spoken 40-year-old who has enjoyed a smooth rise through the ranks of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

However, any power transition will be fraught with risk. While Hun Sen has presided over the longest spell of peace and economic growth in Cambodia's modern history, he has done so in part by inhibiting the emergence of independent institutions, and making himself indispensable to the system's continued functioning. His achievements are thus brittle. With no enduring institutions to cushion a crisis, a smooth transfer of power will require the acquiescence of the majority of the powerful interests supporting Hun Sen, something that cannot be taken for granted. As in any dictatorship, Hun Sen's retirement or sudden removal from the scene carries considerable systemic risk.

Hun Sen's third challenge will be to navigate the choppy international waters in which he currently finds himself. Since the abolition of the CNRP in November, Western governments -- particularly the U.S. and European Union -- have increased pressure on the Cambodian government to reverse its crackdown. Both have withdrawn election-related support, and promised more targeted sanctions if Kem Sokha and the CNRP are not reinstated ahead of the poll.

Hun Sen has responded with strident anti-Western rhetoric, and praise for China, which has grown to become Cambodia's closest foreign partner, displacing the democratic governments that have bankrolled its reconstruction since the early 1990s. Between 2011 and 2015, China funneled nearly $5 billion in loans and investments to Cambodia, mostly for major infrastructure projects, while giving Hun Sen relief from Western pressures to introduce democratic reforms. In return, Cambodia has happily supported Beijing's various interests in the region, including its controversial claims in the South China Sea -- a neat convergence of interests that shows no signs of ending any time soon.

As a result of Chinese backing, Western pressure is unlikely to deflect Hun Sen from his current course. (In any case, a truly free and fair election would put the CPP's wealth and power in jeopardy, something he will never accept). But sanctions could nonetheless give him significant headaches. Cambodia's main vulnerability is its reliance on tariff-free access to European and American markets for its garments and footwear, which make up around 80% of the country's exports and 37% of its gross domestic product. The E.U. is currently undertaking a review of Cambodia's tariff exemptions, and Washington has yet to rule out a similar course of action.

While Hun Sen clearly hopes he can bluff Western governments into accepting the new status quo, tensions seem set to persist, pushing him into a deeper, and potentially unhealthy, reliance on China.

When Cambodians go to the polls this week, there is little doubt that Hun Sen will emerge victorious. But the longer-term viability of CPP rule hinges on whether it can successfully address more fundamental domestic and international challenges. How Cambodia's aging strongman responds will do much to determine his country's trajectory in the years to come -- and whether this month's victory will ultimately prove a Pyrrhic one.

Sebastian Strangio is a Thailand-based journalist focusing on Southeast Asia. He is author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia" (Yale University Press, 2014) and is currently writing a book about the impact of China's rising power in Southeast Asia.

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