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The Nikkei View

Cambodian election gives democracy a bad name

By holding a vote without the main opposition, Hun Sen shows his autocratic colors

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen prepares to cast his vote on July 29. Monitors from Japan, the U.S. and the European Union were notably absent from the general election. (Reuters)

The ruling Cambodian People's Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, won a landslide victory in the July 29 general election. However, given that the CPP dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of the polls, the vote can hardly be called legitimate. What we are seeing is a token democracy, which is entirely unacceptable.

The United Nations helped introduce a democratic election system in the Southeast Asian country in 1993 after the Cambodian civil war ended. Nevertheless, the latest general election, the country's sixth overall, only served to reinforce the de facto autocracy of Hun Sen, who has remained in power for 33 years.

In November last year, the Hun Sen regime forced the CNRP -- the largest opposition party at the time -- to disband under revised laws governing political parties. The upshot was that of the 20 parties that fielded candidates for the latest election, all but the CPP were tiny. In other words, the vote was a farce, staged to ensure the ruling party would win.  

To give the election an air of legitimacy, the Hun Sen government invited overseas observers to monitor the vote. But Japan, the U.S. and Western European countries chose not to send any teams. The only observers ended up being teams from China, Myanmar and Singapore, and individual volunteers from Eastern Europe. The sad truth is that nearly three decades after the 1991 Paris peace accords were signed, Cambodia's democratization efforts are visibly reversing course.

With its underdeveloped industries, the Cambodian economy depends heavily on Chinese investment and financial aid, giving China massive influence over it. This is seen on the political and diplomatic front, with the Hun Sen government always siding with Beijing on China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and other issues brought up within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other arenas.

Domestically, there is growing discontent among the public over the spread of bribery and corruption, and the monopolization of interests by the elite. To contain such criticism, Hun Sen may adopt an even more authoritarian stance, confident that China will have his back. Such a move would undermine Asia's push toward greater democracy.

Many Western experts say economic sanctions are needed to spur Cambodia to make reforms. The danger with that approach, however, is that the more alienated Cambodia becomes, the deeper its dependence on China will likely become. A practical approach is best.

What Cambodia needs is help finding a path toward self-sustaining economic development and away from reliance on China. Japan can help by continuing to tenaciously engage with the country, through both direct investment by private companies and political dialogue, and by suggesting a better way forward.

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