Arguably the real story of Cambodia’s election late last month was that Prime Minister Hun Sen has effectively pulled the bamboo curtain down on a quarter century of multiparty democracy in the Southeast Asian state.
With his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) winning all 125 seats in the National Assembly, Cambodia has all but completed its transition to a one party-state. And with the effective shutting out of 19 minority parties in an election that was slammed by pro-democracy advocates as rigged, Hun Sen and the CPP look to be embarking on a new era in governing Cambodia that brings with it no shortage of uncertainties.
A Predetermined Outcome
Results-wise, Cambodia’s election itself was over before it began. Hun Sen effectively ran a one horse race after he accused the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) of fomenting a “color revolution.” The CNRP was dissolved by the courts, its leader Kem Sokha jailed as his supporters fled, and a crackdown on independent media followed.
The thuggery that accompanied the political landscape of recent years was featured heavily by international broadcasters, like ABC in Australia and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, in the lead up to the poll. Nonetheless, the glowing accounts of the CCP’s victory, in contrast to polls in 2013 where the CNRP shocked the ruling party by winning almost half of the popular vote, was parroted by local media, which has lost much of its independence through forced closures and sales.
Those accounts ignored the reality that stories of people being forced to vote were whispered and rife after months of heavy-handed campaigning and bullying by the authorities, accompanied by warnings of retribution for those who backed CNRP calls for an election boycott. Or the fact that international reports of a senior minister paying bribes to local journalists on the day were ignored by the local press.
A closer look at some of the initial numbers also indicated that irregularities might be at work. For instance, even the National Election Committee initially did add that at least 9.1 percent of the ballots were invalid, an enormous protest vote when compared with just 1.6 percent five years ago. One independent observer said that figure was as high as 14 percent in Phnom Penh and 25 percent in other provincial towns.
Endorsements by election observers, also known as “zombie monitors,” from China, Russia, India, and Vietnam, added to the sham election narrative. Foreign Policy put it bluntly under the headline: “Fake Monitors Endorse Cambodia’s Sham Election.”
Of Reactions (and Future Actions)
Western governments responded with stern condemnations of what had occurred. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop underlined the significance of developments when she said the poll “reversed 25 years of progress towards democracy in Cambodia.” Other states such as Canada and the European Union also issued statements noting the lack of genuine competition and the absence of an inclusive process, which raised questions about the credibility of the results.
What exactly they will do in response, however, is less clear as of now. The White House, for its part, said it would “consider additional steps” to respond to elections and other setbacks to rights in Cambodia, in addition to recent restrictions it has introduced. While such moves have been welcomed by many rights advocates, they have also thus far clearly proven to fall well short of what is required to change the regime’s behavior, particularly when China has been more than willing to fill the void.
Beyond Western states, the voice of Southeast Asian civil society groups was also heard loud and clear. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued the most forthright statement, noting: “Hun Sen has clearly been engaged in a desperate bid to try to legitimize these elections, including by shipping in international observers with questionable democratic credentials, and by threatening people to vote.
“But nothing can take away from the fact that this was a sham election.”
Where to Next for Cambodia?
But arguably the most significant outcome of the election was that Cambodia is effectively returning to being a one-party state under Hun Sen given the actions that have been taken and the outcome that has resulted.
To be sure, close observers of the country will know that this is not the first time Cambodians have been subjected to a one-party state. The late King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, ended multiparty democracy following independence in 1953. Cambodia remained a single-party state from 1955 until 1993 – an era blighted by wars and the genocidal Khmer Rouge under the notorious Pol Pot – when the United Nations oversaw a resumption of democratic multiparty elections.
But the return to a one-party state is nonetheless troubling, even if the outcome was all but assured. Although it might be difficult for some pro-democracy advocates and the CNRP to stomach, even if the opposition been allowed compete, the CPP would have still been favored to win.
As an indicator of this, even Funcinpec, the party of the royal bloodlines and a spent force when compared with its heady days of the 1990s, won a small fraction of the overall vote in the polls. It did not win a seat in 2013 and this time, on current expectations, it actually lost all 41 seats it had been gifted following the CNRP’s demise and a political alliance forged with the CPP.
The CPP’s extensive party machinery is sophisticated, relatively speaking, and covers the countryside, where an older generation still remembers that Hun Sen ended more than three decades of war and delivered on security, which enabled rapid economic growth. They still vote for him. And the years of CPP planning that followed the shock results of the 2013 elections, including the repression leading up to the poll, would have arguably made the bar too high for any opponent to clear even if the rules had otherwise been made to appear fairer than they had.
As one diplomat put it: “The CPP would probably have won anyway.”
But that now remains a moot point.
We will no doubt see more continued efforts by the Hun Sen government to convince the Cambodians and the wider world that the election was free and fair, including advertising things like the higher voter turnout relative to 2013 and the seat total that the CPP won.
But the reality is that even the CPP and Hun Sen itself recognize that Cambodia has embarked on a new era of effective one-party rule. How the CPP navigates that reality at home and abroad – with respect to treatment of other political parties, the wider Cambodian people, and key countries abroad – will be key to watch. For all the regime security that the election victory may have brought the CPP and Hun Sen, aspects of it bring to bear elements of uncertainty as well that will require addressing once the dust truly settles on the recent polls.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.