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Hun Sen is tempting fate in Cambodia's election

Prime minister's strong-arm tactics mask increased vulnerability

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a rally in Kandal Province in May.   © Reuters

Fair is foul and foul is fair in Cambodia ahead of its fifth general election since a United Nations-brokered peace agreement and a poll in 1993.

The more elections the country has held since then, the more authoritarian Cambodia has become. The long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen has been losing his electoral appeal, and has increasingly resorted to coercive methods to produce what now amounts to an elected dictatorship.

At 65 years of age, Hun Sen has vowed to soldier on for another decade. In addition, he is promoting his three sons in what looks like a potential dynastic succession. His strategy for political longevity can be summed up as both "all-out" and "all-in" as he totally eliminates rivals at home and fully relies on China's superpower support from outside.

In the run-up to the July 29 polls, a leading opposition figure, Kem Sokha of the CNRP, was arrested last September on a trumped-up charge of treason for a pro-democracy speech he delivered in Australia in 2013.

Two months after Kem Sokha's arrest, Cambodia's Supreme Court duly dissolved the CNRP, thereby dismantling the increasingly popular opposition party and disenfranchising several million voters who had supported it.

At the same time, the Hun Sen government closed more than 30 radio stations deemed critical of the government; expelled the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental organization; and bankrupted the Cambodia Daily, a leading newspaper established in 1993, by imposing $6.3 million in back taxes.

Further crackdowns on independent media led to the recent sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian businessman from a public relations company that worked for the Cambodian government.

At issue is Cambodia's political future. The ruling Cambodian People's Party was on course to lose the July 29 election to the CNRP, according to internal polling, capping a trend seen in the 2013 contest when the CNRP won 55 parliamentary seats, a gain of 26 seats, while the CPP's representation fell to 68 seats.

Poll surveys convinced Hun Sen that he had to avoid a defeat in 2018 by eliminating the CNRP and its core leaders once and for all. His electoral fears were reinforced by local commune elections in June 2017 when the CNRP received 43% of the vote against 50% for the CPP on a 90% turnout. The momentum had clearly been building for the CNRP. If some of the more than 800,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand were allowed to vote by absentee ballots, the CNRP would defeat the CPP.

To secure an election victory, the CPP has been handing out cash envelopes, each with 20,000 riel ($5), to voters at campaign rallies. It proclaims strong economic performance and better living standards as justification for staying in power.

According to the World Bank, the economy expanded 8% annually in the previous decade and by 7% per year during the current decade. The poverty rate has declined from 53.5% of the population in 2004 to under 10% in 2017. Cambodia's economic boom is underpinned by growth in the garment, footwear and tourism industries. Foreign direct investment amounted to $2.5 billion last year and is projected to reach $3 billion in 2018.

On living standards, infrastructure development and education, the Hun Sen government scores well in government-conducted surveys but less well when it comes to corruption, land ownership rights, and drugs and crime.

Cambodians distrust Hun Sen's dealings with Vietnam, which groomed and trained him to take over after Hanoi dislodged the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

The CNRP would likely score an electoral victory because it could pledge to maintain economic growth while addressing the problems of corruption, crime and the protection of land rights more effectively than Hun Sen.

But Hun Sen is set to have his way indefinitely by throwing in his lot with China. After Kem Sokha's arrest and the CNRP's dissolution, Hun Sen visited China and was embraced with open arms and showered with aid and political support in the face of Western opprobrium. In June, China pledged another $100 million of military aid to his government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and European Union have withdrawn funding support for the upcoming election, although China and Japan will still provide electoral assistance. The U.S. has tightened sanctions and frozen the assets of General Hing Bun Hieng, the head of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, for human rights abuses.

Harsher measures from the U.S. and EU could target the Cambodian garment and footwear sector, which constitutes about 80% of the country's exports. As they represent Cambodia's largest export markets, the actions of the U.S. and EU have been tempered by concerns over the adverse consequences on Cambodian workers.

But if Hun Sen keeps continues to crack down after the election by further persecuting the opposition and violating human rights, the U.S. and EU might play hardball as well. This is what Sam Rainsy, another CNRP leader who lives in exile, has been urging.

Voter turnout will be critical in the upcoming election. The CNRP is trying to keep voters at home by promoting a "clean-finger" campaign, referring to the fact that ink is applied to the index finger of those who vote. While offering cash inducements to voters, Hun Sen has threatened yet undefined punitive measures for those who refuse to vote. After the election results are announced, China will likely give its automatic blessing, while Western democracies will demur. Japan will face a dilemma after providing election monitoring assistance.

Post-election Cambodia will resemble a simmering powder keg. Social unrest is possible in the aftermath, especially if turnout is low and coercion and violence are rife. Hun Sen is banking on the notion that growth and development can deliver to him elected authoritarian rule despite excluding nearly half of the electorate.

Demographic trends and social media pose a threat to Hun Sen. Two-thirds of Cambodia's 16 million population are between 15 and 64 years of age, with another 30% under 15. The new generation born after the 1993 election is increasingly connected to social media. Registered Facebook users in Cambodia, for example, have doubled to 6.8 million in just the past two years.

The writing is on the wall for Hun Sen, but his battle-hardened instincts will be to fight tooth and nail to remain in power. Even as he resorts to increased manipulation and repression, Cambodia's young electorate will become more agitated while Western condemnation intensifies and the political opposition rallies from outside the country.

China therefore should realize that its coddling of Cambodia's elected dictator does not fit well with Beijing's aspirations to become a responsible global leader. Hun Sen would be better off reviving the U.N.-led power-sharing plan of 25 years ago which mirrored the country's popular will. His deeply flawed election this time is likely to set the stage for his demise down the road.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international relations at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and directs its Institute of Security and International Studies.

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