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Cambodia's flawed election will not remove pressure for change

Hun Sen must listen to his people and deliver reform

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
An election official marks a voter's finger with ink at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 29.   © Reuters

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was so worried about a possible defeat at the polls that he banned the largest opposition party and jailed or banished key leaders before staging the July 29 national election. Not surprisingly, with an array of mostly very minor or hastily created parties on the ballot, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won hands down and claimed at least 100 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly.

In a throwback to rubber-stamp elections of a bygone authoritarian era, the state-funded National Election Committee declared voter turnout to have been more than 82 % of the country's 8.3 million registered voters. Many Cambodians interviewed by international media on the day either gave no comment or said they were too afraid to speak.

Some observers and reporters noted a subdued mood at polling stations, compared with the enthusiasm voters showed at the last general election in 2013, when turnout of nearly 70% handed substantial gains to the now-outlawed opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). This time, it is possible that as many as 20% of votes in some places were cast as spoiled ballots. Meanwhile, China's election observer team was among the first to comment publicly and declare the election a success, saying the polls were "smooth and fair."

Cambodia's flawed election is significant because it represents a serious setback for democratic progress. Democracy was installed in Cambodia by a United Nations transitional authority in 1993 and traveled a troubled road until the 2013 polls, in which a sizable number of younger voters signaled a desire for change by giving the opposition 44% of the vote. This posed a threat to Hun Sen, Asia's longest-serving leader. When local elections last year indicated that pro-opposition sentiment remained strong, Hun Sen moved against the CNRP and its leaders, citing a plot to "destabilize the country."

The yawning gap between Hun Sen's perception of what is good for Cambodia -- another decade of his rule -- and that of Cambodians themselves, more than 60% of whom are under 30, presents the most immediate risk. Violence ensued after the opposition refused to accept it had lost the 2013 elections. This time, Hun Sen took no chances; he elevated senior military members to key political positions ahead of the polls, muzzled the media and imposed heavy penalties, including prison sentences, for anti-government postings on social media.

But the pressure for change will not disappear. Younger Cambodians are better educated and better off after average annual economic growth of nearly 8% for the past decade. Hun Sen's party promises higher income and lower prices, but what concerns many Cambodians is the quality of their government and high levels of corruption.

This means that Hun Sen's immediate post-election challenge will be to deliver reforms. That may be hard for someone who has been in power for three decades and has retained power with no contest. Instead, all the signs are that the Cambodian leader will shore up his power using old guard loyalists and the military, whilst promoting members of his family.

This trend is alarming not just for the country's opposition and progressive civil society. Some ruling party members also recognize that renewal is required for their longer-term survival. Without a more inclusive approach that heeds the younger generation, they fear mounting calls for change. One thing to watch for in the new cabinet line-up will be if some younger faces are brought in.

Hun Sen cannot be counted out, however. The mercurial leader is famously unpredictable. It is quite possible that with election victory under his belt, he will ease off pressure on the opposition, and loosen controls on freedom of expression and civil society activism to ease the threat of sanctions from key investors such as the European Union, the main market for the country's vital textile industry. In recent months, the EU has made noises about removing tariff trade access for Cambodian imports, which would seriously hurt the country's economy.

Equally, the opposition needs to change its approach. The CNRP draws heavily on the polarized legacy of the Cambodian civil war of the 1970s and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, after which more than 100,000 Cambodians settled in the U.S. alone. Many of them consider Hun Sen and his government as communist and have contributed significantly to the CNRP's coffers.

The issues raised by former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile, were provocatively divisive and focused on Hun Sen's alleged ties to Vietnam. A bill passed in the U.S. Congress shortly before the July polls and directing punitive measures against the Prime Minister, his family and a number of his inner circle, was backed by a Californian congressman whose district is heavily populated by Cambodian Americans.

In the face of deteriorating democracy, Cambodia badly needs an opposition party that reflects the concerns of Cambodians in the country. The Grass Roots Democracy Party may be able fill this role. One of its founders was Kem Ley, a popular activist who was murdered in 2016. But the party was not organized enough this time to run a full campaign.

The challenge facing Cambodia now is how to sustain a responsive government after a flawed election. Many critics argue that this challenge is compounded by the growing role of China, which has thrown increasing amounts of money and support at the Hun Sen government. Ironically, Beijing's close support for Hun Sen, involving not just financial aid but also influence over policy, risks insulating his government even further from growing pressure for change -- pressure that could have been defused by allowing Cambodians to express their concerns freely at the ballot box.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His most recent book is "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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