Future foreign deals struck with Hun Sen should have conditions attached that promote democracy
Hun Sen might have been re-elected as prime minister of Cambodia on Sunday, but he shouldn’t feel the slightest bit proud about it. The event was absurdly flawed, neither free nor fair, as international standards of democracy require, and failing to represent the people’s will.
The election was embarrassing to witness. About 20 parties contested the race, but only Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had any real chance of winning. He’d sidelined all viable opponents well ahead of the poll, then poured
pressure on the populace to get out and vote, with the result that the CPP will command most if not all 125 seats in the National Assembly and thus govern on its own. Hun Sen, already in power for three decades, will remain there for another five years (and indeed is already looking beyond that).
The election came months after the Supreme Court dissolved the only party possibly capable of defeating Hun Sen – the Cambodian National Rescue Party. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed for dubious reasons. Of the smaller, newer, less organised parties left in the race on Sunday, it is widely believed, some were actually formed just to shore up the CPP
The election commission’s initial tally indicates that voter turnout was 82.2 per cent. Yet the ruling party itself estimated that more than 9 per cent of the nearly seven million ballots cast were spoiled, a sharp and telling increase from 1.6 per cent in the 2013 election.
This polling travesty constituted a major setback for democracy in Cambodia, whose constitution reflects the spirit of national reconciliation achieved following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. Hun Sen is in denial, though. “You all have truly chosen the path of democracy by using your rights as stipulated in the constitution,” he told voters in a Facebook post.
Do democracy and constitutional rights still have a place in modern Cambodia, with its politically swayed courts, shuttered newspapers, jailed critics and single-party rule? What chance is there of justice, accountability and transparent governance? How will the rule of law fare when it still hasn’t had a chance to take root?
In a genuine democracy, opposing political views are tolerated and the free exchange of ideas is encouraged. Instead, Hun Sen and the CPP spent the months prior to the election tightening restrictions on independent news media and civil society. And that can be expected to continue. The people are losing their collective voice and their legislative representation.
The international community faces a difficult decision. Other major countries are keen to trade with and invest in Cambodia, not least to offset the immense influence that China has there. But most also want democracy restored. No foreign country can alter the outcome of this election, but they can speak out against the brazen unfairness of the situation. From now on, foreign aid and engagement should have pre-conditions attached that force Hun Sen to govern justly, heed the law, respect human rights – and to restore democracy.
The strongest voices, of course, should come from within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Cambodia is a member. There has been far too much lip service paid to democratic norms in this region and too much erosion already in the progressive ground gained. When a fellow member so brashly ignores rights and principles, it’s time to draw the line.