After being sworn into office last week, Hun Sen became the leader of a one-party Cambodian state for the second time in his life. The first time it happened was in 1985, when Hanoi promoted him to prime minister of what was then the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea, beginning the rule of one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. It happened again in a carefully orchestrated ceremony in Phnom Penh on September 23, presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni, the nominal head of democratic Cambodia.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Less than two months ago, the Western world was applauding Cambodia’s July 28 parliamentary elections as a turning point for democracy in the country. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won a shocking 55 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly, despite a litany of failures in the electoral process that skewed the vote heavily in favor of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
E.U. High Commissioner Katherine Ashton could hardly contain her enthusiasm in a letter to opposition leader Sam Rainsy in the days following the ballot. “The preliminary results of the parliamentary elections in Cambodia show remarkable gains by your party and I would like to congratulate you on this achievement,” she wrote.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The opposition had doubled its representation in parliament, the biggest blow to the CPP in 20 years. However, that wasn’t good enough for the CNRP or its nearly 3 million supporters. Emboldened by their success at the polls, Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, claimed that if not for manipulation of voter lists and outright electoral fraud, they would have won the election outright. Calls for an investigation into the ballot became the opposition rallying cry.
On September 15, the day before Rainsy and Sokha sat down for top-level talks with Hun Sen to breach the political impasse, the CNRP began three days of mass demonstrations in the capital. More than 20,000 people turned out each day to cheer on CNRP leaders as they took their fight to the negotiating table. Nothing came of the talks.
The CNRP was willing to accept outright control of the National Assembly in exchange for validating a CPP-led government, a condition that Hun Sen told reporters days later was unacceptable as it would have thwarted the government and made it impossible for the CPP to pass a budget without the CNRP’s approval. So the prime minister, who was defeated in 1993 elections by the royalist Funcinpec party but never ceded control of the government, pushed ahead with forming a new government without an opposition party.
With the blessing of the monarch, 68 CPP lawmakers took their oaths on September 23 and unanimously voted in Hun Sen as the head of the new government. After 20 years of democracy, and billions of dollars spent by the U.N. to get Cambodia back on its feet after more than a decade of civil war following the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has returned to being a one-party state.
In many ways, things are now back to normal. In the weeks following the election, Hun Sen was eerily silent. People were left to speculate on what was going on within his party as heavily armed troops and armored personnel carriers inexplicably rolled into Phnom Penh. The day after his new government was made official, the prime minister was acting like himself again. He delivered an epic six-hour speech that was broadcast over the radio and on nine CPP-friendly television stations. Barbed-wire barricades that had blocked many central streets in the capital, which the government said were necessary for security purposes as the new government was sworn in, were taken down. As it has for the past 15 years, the opposition party could only shout about the injustice of it all.
But Hun Sen knows this is not the old opposition. His marathon speech laid out a broad program of reforms, many of which echoed the populist campaign platform that proved so successful for the CNRP during campaign season, including higher wages across the board and more transparency and accountability in government. If Hun Sen doesn’t implement significant reforms over the next five years, he faces two options: be crushed at the polls in 2018 and give up power peacefully or call off democracy altogether and become “the next Burma,” relying on Chinese largesse as he suppresses domestic discontent.
The opposition, meanwhile, thinks it has little to gain by joining a National Assembly controlled by the CPP. It’s most hardline supporters won’t accept anything less than an overthrow of the current regime, while even the most moderate CNRP supporters can agree that giving legitimacy to Hun Sen without being guaranteed a check to his power would be a waste of the party’s newfound popularity.