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Strong grip
Political future of Cambodia

The recent developments in Cambodian politics signal a troubled future for the country’s already volatile political legacy. Although the recent national elections declared yet another victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian National Party (CNP), that has maintained its grip on power for two decades, there seems to be a break in the status-quo as the result has been challenged by the return of Cambodia’s veteran politician Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

His return from exile has obviously stirred up the political atmosphere of the country. His decision to oppose and challenge the election result could potentially threaten the hegemonic character of Hun Sen’s rule, if not completely topple him, but little will change on the ground with respect to democratization of the electoral process in Cambodia.

Unfortunately, opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s appeal against the election results felt on deaf ears as Hun Sen’s two decade long rule has transformed the country into an authoritarian government, due to his strong grip over state institutions. Even though regular elections have been held since the UN- administered transition in 1993, Hun Sen’s successive victories have only perpetuated and legitimated the status-quo.

Hun Sen moved troops and armored vehicles into the capital after the opposition first threatened protests several weeks ago, sparking fears of violent clashes. Hun Sen has been in power for 28 years and shown a heavy hand in dealing with his opponents.

Electoral fraud

The National Election Council supported the claims of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that it won 68 seats in the national parliament, while the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 55. Six other parties failed to gain any seats. Albeit the CPP claimed victory, the result was nevertheless a blow to the party because in the last parliamentary elections, it held 90 seats following a landslide election in 2008.

The opposition led by Rainsy refuses to recognize the results. It has disputed the result in 15 provinces and challenged the overall vote, claiming improper voter registration lists. Rainsy denounced the results on the grounds that one million ‘ghost names’ had been registered on the voting list to boost CPP’s vote.

CNRP supporters took to the streets of Phnom Penh in protest. The government responded by bringing armored vehicles and troops, creating fears of violence. Rainsy criticized this move. Although the CNRP relatively toned down its rhetoric, the situation remains tense. Further, the government and the opposition failed to reach any agreement on an inquiry into the conduct of election. The face-off became personal as the two parties directly took on the leaders.

Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia after a royal pardon to begin his campaign ten days before the elections. He was living in France in a self imposed exile, escaping charges of falsifying documents and disinformation that sentenced him in absence for eleven years in prison in 2011. Before that, Rainsy remained an active member in the controversial political legacy of Cambodia, having served as a finance minister in 1993 for the Royal Funcinpec Party, the same year Prince Norodum Rananidh was forced to enter into a coalition with Hun Sen. Even after a coup in 1997 that expelled him, he remained active in political life. He set up his own party, the CNRP along with Kem Sokha, a human rights campaigner.

The CNRP has strengthened its support base among the youth of Cambodia by mainly focusing on Hun Sen’s cozying up to Vietnam, flawed economic management and corruption. The long and bloody history between Vietnam and Cambodia is a sensitive topic among the people. For centuries, The Khmer rule stretched from Thailand to Vietnam and Malaysia. During the 1400’s Cambodia became a buffer state to Vietnam and Thailand and after the French reign of 90 years ended in 1935, it soon got engulfed in the war in Vietnam, as it was used by North Vietnamese against South Vietnam. Eventually, Vietnam invaded the country in 1979 to overthrow the brutal and genocidal regime of Pol Pot under the Khmer Rouge, with the chief help of Hun Sen. Since then, Hun Sen has had strong relations with Vietnam.

Ineffective leadership

Hence, Hun Sen has remained in power ever since, virtually unchallenged. He has used the state to his advantage and over the time, his rule has become autocratic and authoritarian. He is also apparently creating a dynasty by installing many of his family members, including his three sons in key military and political positions.

Although he has delivered meager economic results, the state of the country remains stagnant and poor. The country is still heavily dependent on foreign aid and the freedom house rating of Cambodia has continuously been ‘not free’ even though Hun Sen has spent a considerable time in office.
There is resentment over the growth of social inequality that has effectively transformed the economy into one of cheap labor. Land grabbing and boosting stronger connections with the Chinese and Vietnamese through massive economic sanctions along with massive wealth gap between the rich and the poor have also marred the CPP’s long run.

In addition, there exists the perennial issue of corruption and an impunity culture that favors the rich and politically connected.

Therefore, the question arises as to how he has managed to remain in power despite such blatant flaws. His techniques have ranged from benefitting from the border dispute with Thailand that overshadowed his close relations with Vietnam to enough economic sanctions to keep the people quiet.

Further, the fact that the polls are played with cannot be ruled out. Hun Sen’s rivals have claimed overwhelming exampled of misconduct by the ruling party, like creating ‘ghost names’ and deletion of thousands of opposition supporters from voting lists. Rainsy himself wasn’t allowed to vote, despite being given the royal pardon.

Hun Sen also amended the constitution in 2006 to replace a requirement of two-thirds majority to only a simple majority in parliament. This helped CPP win without forming coalitions. Lastly, he has always remained comfortable in power as he has been unopposed, which is why his authority in entrenched in all aspects of Cambodian political and administrative functioning.

Therefore, although the CPP was expecting yet another comfortable win, it was given a much needed jolt with the reduced numbers because some were able to see through Hun Sen’s flawed grip on power. Rainsy helped crystallize this opposition upon his return.

Although Cambodia has benefited from two decades of relative stability, having endured a civil war and the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge, its political leaders are not helping the country enough to get out of its political and historical limbo.

With a gross national income of only $880 per capita yearly, its people are still one of the poorest in Southeast Asia. At least 80 percent of Cambodian workers are subsistence farmers and at least 40 percent of the people are living under less than a dollar per day. State sanctioned land theft is the biggest problem and Cambodia’s future lacks nutrition and basic education.

If even after so many years of steady political rule Cambodia hasn’t been able to develop some decent standards of living and functioning, it is a cause of concern. These conditions are a blatant question mark on Hun Sen’s grip on power. Despite maintaining power for all these years, he hasn’t brought about any relative change.

Democratization of the election process also seems a far away dream. Post election period in Cambodia is more or less the same. There are accusations of irregularities and voter fraud, intimidation and threats to the opposition and activists along with mass demonstrations and state crack-down. A hegemonic regime like Hun Sen’s has stood unopposed which is why voters are unlikely to take change seriously, especially under such claims.

Therefore, unless there isn’t a serious wave of anti-regime opposition, based primarily on ill performance on part of the long standing rule of the CPP, change in the political sphere is not entirely possible. This can come about with the help of an independent and responsible opposition which really understands the rhetoric of the people. If the CNRP is able to channel the opposition positively, especially among the youth, Cambodia’s political future could see significant changes.

International intervention

Lastly, the international factors are significant. Rainsy called upon international community to take a stand on the crisis. However, support from the EU and the US has been muted, although the two have expressed concern over the situation.

USA’s primary concern is to undermine the Chinese influence in Cambodia. USA’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ is aimed at containing China militarily and diplomatically throughout the region. USA has also not backed Rainsy directly, even though he is right-wing and pro-US, partly because Hun Sen has already established close military ties with the US.

Cambodia is also emerging as an important regional game-changer that could prove to be a sticky point within ASEAN, which is planning to create its own trade block in 2015. Cambodia is now China’s main wild card.

Therefore, how the international community, especially the two superpowers use and deal with Cambodia, will not only be subject to the internal political climate of the country, but also influence the regional power game.

Hun Sen is known for not giving up things easily and has a habit of changing the situation in his favor. Even if illegal, Hun Sen has said his party might fill all the assembly seats itself if the opposition boycotts the opening of parliament.

As far as the current election fraud situation is concerned, it is virtually impossible that Hun Sen would allow his party’s election victory to be reversed; he could make some concessions to lure the opposition into fulfilling their legislative duties. These could include an arrangement for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to get an assembly seat.