Hun Sen has Sunday’s election locked up, but the ballots can still be instruments of change
Cambodia’s always-fragile democracy is about to become the big loser in the election taking place on Sunday. Prime Minister Hun Sen has done all he needs to do to ensure he wins another term, and that included dismantling basic freedoms and undermining the rule of law.
In the country’s sixth general election since 1993, when a United Nations-sponsored poll culminated a painful, drawn-out peace process, voters will be casting ballots to fill 125 seats in the legislature. But nearly 70,000 security personnel will be deployed at the 23,000 polling stations, according to the Election Commission, making the exercise appear much as elections did when violence dominated Cambodian politics. Bullets and blood were common enough in the years following the civil war that ended the Khmer Rouge regime and its ghastly reign of genocide.
This weekend’s election is a long way from being free and fair because Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have made sure they face no viable competitor. Through judicial chicanery, the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the main opposition entity – was dissolved. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed for treason and 118 of its members were banned from politics for five years. Political activists and independent news media were silenced. No public grumbling about Hun Sen or his leadership is tolerated.
With no major rival party in the race, the CPP has a lock on this election. The 20 other parties vying for votes are fielding mostly unknown candidates and are anyway too small and weak to challenge Hun Sen. A third of them were only founded this year and 17 of them have never had a representative in parliament.
Some nations have voiced concern over the one-sided contest, but there is a decided lack of unity. The United States and European Union withdrew financing for the polls, but China and Japan have maintained their support, in effect legitimising Hun Sen’s grip on power.
Nor is there any chance of an unexpected outcome similar to what happened in Malaysia’s May election, when former premier Mahathir Mohamad returned to power on the back of ballots rather than bullets. Sam Rainsy, a former leader of the CNRP, might have been able to topple Hun Sen, but lives in exile. Kem Sokha is imprisoned. Funcipec leader Norodom Ranariddh, who was elected prime minister in the historic 1993 election, was severely injured in a car accident last month, while his party lost its heart long ago.
Hun Sen badly needs the election win to justify his continuation in power after three decades. He wants the voters to endorse his regime, something they did not do strongly in the last elections, in 2013, when the signal went out that change was desired. He does enjoy significant support. Many Cambodians admire him for rebuilding their war-ravaged country from scratch and keeping it peaceful. But no one is blind to his reliance on wealthy, corrupt cronies and his political manipulation, and many believe Cambodia would have made much more progress with someone else at the helm.
Though voters have no strong alternative candidate on Sunday, they could still use their ballots to send Hun Sen a message. He will win regardless, but if the protest votes are dispersed among other parties, he would get that message – that democratic reform is needed and the rule of law must be heeded, though not his authoritarian version of it.