Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

As Elections Near, Cambodia’s Democracy Stumbles

Western donors face a conundrum as Hun Sen continues to ignore calls for fair elections.

Less than six weeks before national elections are set to be held in Cambodia, there are officially no opposition parliamentarians—they were summarily stripped of their membership by a 12-member committee made up entirely of representatives of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) earlier this month for alleged infractions of internal rules. You are also unlikely to see any of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s candidates for National Assembly on TV, as the state and CPP-friendly media owners have decided to allot only 30 minutes a day on one television station to non-ruling parties.

In his daily speeches broadcast across the nation on radio and television, Prime Minister Hun Sen has made sport of lobbing pot shots at the opposition party and its leaders while his CPP has refused to take part in debates and public forums prior to elections. In the provinces, CNRP organizers have complained of systematic disruptions of opposition campaign stops and destruction of their campaign signs.

The list of potential problems with Cambodia’s upcoming elections doesn’t end there. More than a million eligible voters will not be able to cast their ballot because their names do not appear on official voter roles, while about a million “ghost voters” – people who don’t actually exist – remain on the lists, according to research from U.S. nonprofit National Democratic Institute.

CNRP President Sam Rainsy faces an 11-year jail sentence if he returns to the country and the party’s acting president, Kem Sokha, has recently been threatened with lawsuits and legal action for allegedly denying Khmer Rouge atrocities and for supposedly paying for sex with a 15-year-old girl, a charge made by Hun Sen in one of his speeches last week. The country’s election commission is stacked with members of the ruling party and refuses to heed calls for reform. Hun Sen’s government is determined to hold elections on July 28, but democracy in Cambodia seems to be falling apart.

The UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, has warned that, without reforms, the coming elections will not meet international standards of legitimacy. “There are major flaws in the administration of elections in Cambodia and urgent and longer-term reforms are needed to give Cambodians confidence in the electoral process and in the workings of the National Election Committee,” Subedi said in a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year.

But international calls for free and fair elections have brought about only adversarial responses from the administration of Hun Sen, which is showing no signs of cowing to pressure for reform. A U.S. State Department statement calling for the reinstatement of CNRP members of parliament and the inclusion of all political parties in free and fair elections earlier this month was called “colonial” by CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who asked that the American embassy in Phnom Penh relay a message to Washington that Cambodia would not be following the its advice.

Responding to the EU’s announcement that it wasn’t sending election observers, the NEC said that it was a sign of the international community’s faith in Cambodia’s government. “[A]s we grow stronger both socially and economically and can run our own elections, they [international observers] will automatically decrease,” said NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha in an interview with the Cambodia Daily newspaper. Alain Vandersmissen, the EU delegation’s minister-counselor, noted that Cambodia was yet to address many of the shortcomings that the EU had pointed out after the 2008 elections, including the lack of an independent election commission and unequal access to the media.

Rather than ramping up its rhetoric, the major Western donors who have spent millions over the past two decades to install a democratic system in Cambodia are scaling back their financial support for elections. The EU, which in previous parliamentary elections has sent thousands of monitors, has decided against participation this year. The UN Development Program, which in the past has supported balanced political coverage on state media, had its “Equity News” program shut down by the government earlier this year and will not be involved in covering this year’s election campaign.

“There has been a reduction in funding for election related activities compared to 2008, when the amount of funding for elections was enormous—a huge UN program, huge EU program, lots of activities you don’t have this year,” Laura Thornton, resident director of the National Democratic Institute in Cambodia, told The Diplomat. “Has that caused change—the pulling of funding as the anti-carrot pushing for reform, I don’t know.” But if the past is any indication, it won’t be, Thornton said. “Recommendations in terms of elections have been the same over last ten years, everyone has come to a consensus on what those changes should be—media access, voter registration, issues related to impartiality of NEC—whether EU diplomats or civil society, and we have seen hardly any progress on that. The efforts of groups focused on election reform to advocate and lobby for change have not been successful.”

With previous diplomatic efforts at promoting democracy in Cambodia having shown little promise, the remaining options available for Western donors are either tying democratic reforms to development programs or sanctioning Cambodia and its leaders, steps which donor countries, who continue to pledge over a billion dollars in aid to Cambodia each year, might have a difficult time justifying, said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “Foreign countries have a hard time with Cambodia. If there were no elections, it would be easier, but there is an element of free press, there are opposition parties and they speak out. It is a procedural democracy…but not liberal democracy, where the opposition can flourish and journalists aren’t killed,” Thayer said, noting that more significant offenses are happening across the border in Vietnam “and all [Western countries] are doing is saying they won’t sell them weapons.”

Most importantly, perhaps, the CPP remains more popular than its rivals. A survey of 2,000 voters conducted by the International Republican Institute in January found that 79 percent of respondents thought the country is “generally headed in the right direction” under CPP rule.  “No matter how stacked elections are, it would be hard to argue that, even with a level playing field, that the CPP would not win,” Mr. Thayer said.

Beginning with widespread efforts to promote democracy in Cambodia when the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia organized the country’s first democratic elections in the country in 1993, donors have struggled to get the CPP to play along with their rules. After losing the first popular vote to Funcinpec, a royalist party headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh that now holds only two seats in parliament, the CPP refused to concede elections and Hun Sen was made second prime minister alongside Ranariddh. Four years later, Hun Sen took outright control of the government during three days of factional fighting that saw Funcinpec battling the CPP on the streets of Phnom Penh. Since then, the CPP has only consolidated its control of Cambodia’s democratic systems – it won 64 seats in National Assembly in 1998, 73 in 2003 and 90 in 2008. In commune elections last year, the CPP came away with more than 97 percent of the country’s 1,633 commune chief positions.

As efforts to loosen the CPP’s grip on power are beginning to be seen as futile, democratic donor countries are directing resources elsewhere, according to John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia scholar at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “Years of democracy and governance programs have not turned the tide in Cambodia, and some may be turning to other pastures where the prospects for a democratic surge look brighter–namely Myanmar,” he said.

The worst-case scenario for these Western donors would be that by pushing Cambodia too hard for reform, Mr. Hun Sen’s administration decides to turn toward China, which has ramped up its lending and no-strings-attached aid to Cambodia in recent years. Nonetheless, having historically taken the lead on international efforts to promote democracy in Cambodia, the U.S. should remain engaged in democracy building in Cambodia and wait out an inevitable turn in popular sentiment against China, according to Ciorciari. “Too much Western caution on democracy promotion would be unwise. China's approach to aid and investment in Cambodia wins it friends among elites but is already beginning to generate public consternation. In the long run, a U.S. policy that couples democracy promotion with pragmatic engagement is the most likely to deliver positive results for Cambodia and its Western partners,” he said.

Colin Meyn is a reporter at The Cambodia Daily.