On June 13, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in one of his now-daily streams of consciousness that dictate government policy, announced that he wants to amend existing election laws so that anyone who doesn’t vote in July’s general election will never be able to stand as a candidate in any future ballot. Like much of Hun Sen’s actions over recent months, it’s overkill – governance on a whim.
His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after all, is assured complete victory at July’s ballot after barring its main rival from competing. He has won the support of most ruling party members for the handover of the prime ministership to his eldest son, Hun Manet, probably sometime later this year. His family dominates all areas of society. His other sons will take senior roles after July. He has pacified the influential though rumbustious tycoons (oknhas). He has cemented his power over the military after confirming Mao Sophan, leader of Brigade 70, his de-facto private bodyguard unit, as the next army chief.
Seemingly anyone who has said anything negative about Hun Sen in the past is pleading publicly for forgiveness, while jailed or threatened critics of his government have appealed for clemency or joined the ranks of the CPP.
So why does he need this new law? Hun Sen has never liked threats of an election boycott. After forcibly dissolving his previous main rival, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017, he then threatened to punish voters who joined in the CNRP’s call for a “clean fingers” boycott of the 2018 general election. The election body, at the time, declared calls for a boycott a “crime.” Interior Minister Sar Kheng said voters who didn’t vote could face fines of up to $5,000.
Similar to 2018, threats to punish individual voters for boycotting this July’s election will mostly be just that. While voter turnout was officially higher in 2018 than at the previous election in 2013, more voters spoiled their ballots than voted for the second-placed party, a protest against the lack of credible alternatives. One imagines it will be a similar situation again this year, although this time around the stakes are higher for Hun Sen, given that he wishes use July’s election as a de-facto plebiscite to confer legitimacy on his anointed successor, Hun Manet. Low voter turnout wouldn’t look good and might be used by some intra-party rivals to say the public doesn’t have confidence in his dynastic succession.
But it goes deeper than that.
As I wrote here in The Diplomat some months ago, there is a worrying trend of “compelled speech” in Cambodia. It’s no longer enough to remain outside of politics, or, indeed, to self-censor and avoid making political statements. In the past, the ruling party preferred it if people didn’t take an active interest in politics. “Leave politics to us,” it tactically told ordinary Cambodians, meaning, allow the CPP and elites to get rich and brutalize their rivals, “and we’ll deliver you a slightly better standard of living each year.” Middle-class professionals and intellectuals were allowed some freedom, and it generally wasn’t considered a problem to remain neutral. Many prominent names in Cambodian academia had a foot in both the CPP and opposition camps. And as long as you weren’t too overtly on the side of the opposition or radically anti-CPP, you were left alone.
That’s no longer the case. In the sweltering heat of oppression in Phnom Penh, everyone is undergoing loyalty tests. I’m told it’s too much for some. A number of middle-class professionals have considered leaving the country because of the pressure of conformity that’s expected of them. Independent-minded foreigners are thinking twice about any job that might come with a loyalty test. There’s a rush to join the CPP ranks. Preap Kol, the former executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, joined the party last month, for instance. I know for a fact that some well-known commentators, who were previously neutral, are only eulogizing Hun Sen and the CPP on social media for cynical reasons.
And it’s not enough just to “confess” your past “mistakes” and say you’re now a fully paid-up member of the CPP. You now have to endlessly prove your love for Hun Sen on social media. Take former opposition activist Hun Kosal. He was arrested in March on charges of incitement and insulting the monarch for Facebook posts implying Hun Sen had more power than the king. But then he publicly apologized to Hun Sen, was given bail, photographed looking humbled next to Hun Sen, joined the CPP, and then handed a comfy though ineffective role as one of the numerous undersecretaries of state at the Ministry of Land Management. Nowadays, his social media accounts and media interviews are pure sycophancy. The degree of flattery is embarrassing, at times.
One might retort that this is normal in Cambodia ahead of an election. But, again, this time it feels different. And more permanent. Academia has now been truly taken over by the CPP. Perhaps one or two universities and think tanks are not fully dependent on party patronage. Hun Sen is busy politicizing the school curriculum. A genuine independent civil society up until the late 2010s has been replaced by a mass of party-aligned organizations, many run by Hun Sen’s family. In many ways, the CPP has reverted to its communist roots: party-aligned civil society groups resemble “mass organizations”; not endlessly praising the CPP is considered heresy; former opposition activists are flagellating themselves in public “self-criticism” and confessions. One wouldn’t be surprised if “Hun Sen Thought” became an actual thing.
And now the “mandatory” voting amendment. Hun Sen claims it wouldn’t make voting mandatory, but it will. Unless you vote now, you’ll be signing away your future right to run for elected office. In other words, you’re compelled to say something now so that you have the right to say something in the future. And, let’s be clear, it’s really a compulsion to vote for the CPP. Come July 23, the ballot stations will be heaving with party cadres and the police, watching for anyone who doesn’t cast their vote for the ruling party. That’s usual in Cambodia. Any commune that didn’t vote for the CPP was subsequently denied access to investment and funds. This time around, though, it’s far more personal and legal.
One might question the impact of this. One problem with compelled speech is that people are forced to say things they don’t actually think. Hun Sen (and his heir Hun Manet) cannot know how much of the public actually supports the CPP, and so don’t know what percentage of the public would actually turn against them if there was a possibility of political change. That not-knowing spreads paranoia in single-party states, as Cambodia must now be considered.
Neither, more importantly, will the Hun family know who within the CPP is a genuine party supporter. There have been so many defections to the CPP from people who spent their entire lives decrying the CPP, this will only further fuel Hun Sen’s escalating paranoia about factions and disloyalty. I’d certainly be annoyed if I was one of the many lowly CPP stalwarts who are routinely passed by for promotion and now have to watch opposition activists parachuted into more senior roles, all only to feed Hun Sen’s fixation with maintaining his family’s power.