Not long after Cambodia held its general election on July 29, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) predictably began declaring a major victory, despite the fact that the outcome had been all but predetermined and the process had been criticized as being neither free nor fair. While the immediate focus of headlines following polls has been on the details of the “sham election,” the longer-term question is how Cambodia will manage a range of domestic and foreign policy challenges over the next few years.
As I have noted before in these pages, a heavy-handed crackdown by the CPP on the opposition, media, and civil society, including the outlawing of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), all but assured the fact that the CPP would win the 2018 general election. Now, as the dust settles following the election, the conversation will gradually shift more to how Cambodia would navigate its post-2018 election future in the coming years.
Part of that concerns the evolution of Cambodia’s own internal dynamics. While the CPP’s victory assures that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has gotten another five years in office, the CPP will still need to make some inroads to address the significant structural challenges that remain for Cambodia, from income inequality to corruption.
As the CPP continues contending with these issues, observers will also be looking further out for signs for what a post-Hun Sen Cambodia may eventually look like. Though part of that conversation will be on the internal evolution of the CPP and succession dynamics following Hun Sen’s departure, there will also be a focus on what the future shape of the Cambodian opposition will look like as well, especially given the traction it has been getting among certain segments of the Cambodian people.
Another aspect of the post-2018 election future is what Cambodia does abroad, including management of its foreign alignments. Though Hun Sen has been previously heralded for his adroit balancing of various foreign powers, the reality is that Cambodia has also had a rather drastic shift towards China and away from Western countries in the past few years, in part due to its own internal evolution. Apart from how that plays into the broader geopolitics of U.S.-China competition, that has also undermined its own ability to exercise a balanced foreign policy.
The extent to which this trend will continue remains to be seen. The immediate fallout from the elections means that the frostiness in ties with actors such as the United States and Australia is likely to continue to some degree, with moves such as the expansion of some targeted sanctions. But as things evolve thereafter, Hun Sen may also look to recalibrate Cambodia’s foreign relations, not only with these countries but also with other influential players such as Japan and Vietnam.
In the coming days, we will continue to see a focus on the specifics of the election itself, including in terms of indicators such as voter turnout. But the longer-term question is what the polls mean for Cambodia’s post-election future, and how it affects not only itself, but its neighbors as well as the relationships among major powers.