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Prospects after Cambodia's fabricated poll - Thitinan Pongsudhirak


While Thailand has a seemingly indefinite military government with no clear poll date, Cambodia is holding an election on July 29 with a foregone conclusion. After methodically taken apart oppositional forces, the incumbent government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, under the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), is set to win a landslide. At issue now will be what happens after the election. At least three dynamics are in play. How they intersect and enmesh will determine Cambodia's political future.

First, Hun Sen has dismantled the opposing Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) because the CPP was on course to lose this election. In 2016, the government commissioned a leading Israeli public opinion research firm to gauge its political standing. The survey method featured more than 5,000 personal interviews, conducted several months apart between May and September. The results showed that the CPP and Hun Sen were losing popularity with the Cambodian electorate.

The CPP was seen as weak on drugs, crime, corruption, and protection of natural resources and land rights. Even the areas where it polled strongly, such as infrastructure, education and standards of living, there was a qualitative decline from May to September 2016, according to survey results. The CPP's declining popularity was consistent with electoral trends in train since the previous, 2013 poll, when the main opposition party gained 26 more MP seats for a total of 55 to CPP's dwindled 68 in the 123-member national assembly.

Avoiding defeat in 2018 meant Hun Sen would have to go for the jugular. His electoral fear was reinforced in June 2017 when local commune elections yielded 43% of the popular vote to CNRP, closing in on the CPP's 50%. Remarkably, the CNRP's number of commune chiefs multiplied 11 times, from 40 to 489. The CNRP had all the momentum going for it. If some of the more than 800,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand are allowed to vote by absentee ballots, CNRP would edge out CPP.

After poll results in 2016 leading to commune election outcome in June 2017, Hun Sen went to work. Last September, he arranged for CNRP's leader Kem Sokha to be jailed on a bogus charge of treason for a pro-democracy speech delivered in Australia in 2013. Two months thereafter, Cambodia's Supreme Court duly dissolved the CNRP, thereby disenfranchising some three million voters. Concurrently, the Hun Sen government closed more than 30 radio stations deemed critical of the government, expelled the US-based National Democratic Institute (an NGO), and bankrupted The Cambodia Daily, a leading newspaper established in 1993 (by imposing US$ 6.3 million in back taxes). Further crackdown on independent media led to the recent sale of The Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian businessman from a PR company that worked for the government.

To enable its election victory, the CPP has been handing out cash envelopes, each with KHR20,000 (US$5), to individual voters at campaign rallies. It trumpets economic performance and better living standards as justifications for staying in power. According to World Bank data, the Cambodian economy expanded 8% annually in 2000-10 and 7% per year in 2011-17. Poverty has declined from 53.5% of the population in 2004 to less than 10% in 2017. Cambodia's economic boom is underpinned by growth in garment, footwear, and tourism. Foreign direct investment amounted to US$ 2.5 billion last year and is projected to reach US$ 3 billion in 2018.

Hun Sen's problem is the CNRP could also keep up economic development while addressing corruption, crime and land rights more effectively. This is why Hun Sen had to get rid of the erstwhile opposition party once and for all.

The second factor at work in Cambodian politics is the interest of the major powers. While he banks on growth, jobs, and standards of living at home, Hun Sen is relying on China for superpower backup and largesse. After Kem Sokha's arrest, the elected strongman visited China and was showered with aid and political support in the face of Western opprobrium. Last month, China pledged US$ 100 million of military aid to the Cambodian government.

On the other hand, the US and European Union have withdrawn funding support for the upcoming election, although China and Japan still provide electoral assistance. The US has stepped up its sanctions and froze assets of General Hing Bun Hieng, the head of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, for human rights abuses. Harsher measures from the US and EU could target Cambodian garment and footwear sector, which constitute 80% of the country's exports. As they represent Cambodia's largest export markets, the US and EU have been tempered by concern over the adverse consequences on Cambodian workers.

But if Hun Sen continues to play geopolitical hardball after the election by further persecuting the opposition and violating human rights, the US and EU might stiffen their response. If Western sanctions intensify after the election, China will be under the spotlight. The extent to which Beijing coddles Hun Sen in the event of a stepped-up Western sanctions regime will be critical. For China, financial muscle to offset Western markets is not as much of an issue as international prestige and credibility. Financing a blatant elected dictatorship at the expense of the Cambodian people will reflect poorly on Chinese leaders. If China takes the low road in Cambodia, its aspiration for international leadership will be tarnished correspondingly.

Finally, the opposition will lose the short game up to and in the aftermath of the election but it stands to gain in the longer term. Cambodia's electorate is strikingly young. Just about its entire 16-million population are under 64 years old, with nearly a third under 15. Social media connectivity has spread widely, with almost half of the population registered as Facebook users. The electoral and demographic patterns favour the opposition CNRP in the longer term.

The CNRP's challenge is what to do in the interim while its core leaders are exiled and persecuted. Kem Sokha is now proving his true leadership by suffering in jail in defiance of dictatorship. Sam Rainsy, the other major CNRP leader in exile, has been rallying from abroad. In the long run, the CNRP's chances are best represented by Kem Sokha.

If Sam Rainsy cuts a deal with Hun Sen again, as was the case in July 2014 after the poll a year earlier, the CNRP would lose considerable credibility. A Sam Rainsy-Hun Sen deal is not implausible if the latter wins overwhelmingly only to face debilitating Western sanctions.


The CNRP's resolve and perseverance in the interim is crucial. Hun Sen will appear to be on top but he will stand on weak and increasingly untenable ground. If a post-election deal is to emerge again, CNRP's core leaders should ensure that Kem Sokha is front and centre and that a power-sharing arrangement is premised on the rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions and mechanisms, including the CNRP's re-constitution and revival.