LAST Thursday, the Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the only credible opposition party at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, effectively making the country a one-party state ahead of next year’s general election.
The ruling to disband the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – which includes a five-year political ban for 118 of its members – has been met with almost universal criticism from the international community. The United States has withdrawn its support of the National Election Committee on grounds that next year’s election “will not be legitimate, free, or fair.”
United States is gravely concerned that #Cambodia dissolved main opposition party #CNRP on baseless, politicized allegations. Cambodia should reverse course: undo dissolution, free @KemSokhaCNRP, and respect multiparty democracy as enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution. pic.twitter.com/wjdye6hH8J
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) November 17, 2017
They have also said they will be taking “concrete steps” to try and reverse the government’s course. These sentiments have been echoed by other governing bodies, including the UK government, the European Union (EU), and Australia, among others.
With the opposition now in tatters, what does Hun Sen’s latest move mean for Cambodia? Is there any hope of reinstating free and fair elections? And what can we expect to happen next?
What next for Cambodia’s parliament?
In purely practical terms, the dissolution of the CNRP means 5 other parties will take their seats in the National Assembly – a detail that Hun Sen has used in the past to reassure people that Cambodia will not become a one-party state, as many have feared. But given the fractured and unpopular nature of the remaining opposition parties, Thursday’s ruling has essentially made that the case.
While Cambodia technically has dozens of political parties, only two parties have shown an ability to mobilise large numbers of voters – Hun Sen’s own Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP, which took 48 percent and 44 percent of the popular vote, respectively, in the 2013 national election. The next runner-up, the royalist Funcinpec party, captured just 3.7 percent of the vote, failing to win a single seat after a decades-long slide into irrelevance.
Local people have little faith in what remains of the opposition, as Theoun, a coordinator from Siem Reap, explained to Asian Correspondent earlier this year.
“I will not vote in next year’s election,” he said. “It sounds as I am not doing my part as a good citizen of this country. In reality, I have no one to look up to.
“Those small parties will not make a difference even if I vote for them. They are too busy fighting with one another.”
— The Phnom Penh Post (@phnompenhpost) November 16, 2017
What next for CNRP?
Thursday’s verdict was damning for the CNRP but, while the party is most certainly down, they may not be completely out. CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs, and daughter of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, Monovithya Kem has been working behind the scenes for months in anticipation of Thursday’s decision.
Speaking to Asian Correspondent hours before the Court’s decision was announced, Kem said she has been “galvanizing support from the international community” for two months, stressing that timing is key if they want to see a solution to the crisis.
“There is still opportunity for recourse if the international community acts in a timely manner,”she said. “I keep emphasizing timing is everything, because we have a set date for 2018 elections, any recourse must happen before the end of 2017 to restore the election environment.”
While the statements and interest from international figures has been “encouraging,” Kem believes Cambodia needs to see more in the form of action, such as “targeted individual sanctions.”
But even with the intervention of western governments, the future of the party does not look good.
“This latest move from Hun Sen has an air of finality about it,” journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio told Asian Correspondent following the verdict. Given the Prime Minister’s actions, Strangio believes it is very unlikely that Hun Sen will allow the CNRP to reconstitute, and even if he does, it won’t be in any form that is able to challenge his hold on power.
“These movements suggest that the game is over, that he’s no longer willing to tolerate even the pretence of a formal political opposition,” Strangio said.
On Friday it was reported that the CNRP may appeal to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a bid to get the Court’s decision overturned. But even in the unlikely instance that the court will hear the case, there are countries who would be willing to step in to block the hearing.
— Rainsy Sam (@RainsySam) November 18, 2017
A similar problem would likely lie with UN intervention, Strangio said. While the rest of ASEAN may not be openly supportive of Hun Sen, several members – such as Vietnam and Thailand – have similar concerns over national sovereignty and the demands of western governments. If there was to be any serious move towards UN action against Hun Sen, it would almost certainly be blocked by developing countries in a similar situation.
There is no “obvious solution” for the international community as they decide how to proceed. Given the value of exports that go the EU and the US, sanctions certainly have the ability to destabilise the Cambodian economy. And while this may provide valuable leverage over Hun Sen, the end result would be unclear and may have lasting negative impacts on the people of Cambodia, rather than those in power.
“Once you start threatening to pull preferential trade access for Cambodian goods in western markets, you’re threatening to cast hundreds of thousands of young garment workers out of work and creating a potential source of social instability in Cambodia, but all without any real clear idea of how that will produce a democratic outcome,” Strangio explains.
Given Cambodia’s history over the last 25 years and failed past attempts to create a democratic system, Strangio argues that there are severe limits to what can be achieved through outside pressure.
“You can’t force [the government] to adopt a democratic mindset, and force them to have a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment where they adopt political norms and start to rule in a more democratic and humane way,” he said.
“For Hun Sen, domestic survival comes first, international relationships are a secondary consideration.”
With Hun Sen’s mind seemingly made up and little recourse for the disbanded CNRP, it looks likely that next year’s election will be a one-horse race, seeing the former Khmer Rouge general’s 32-year rule continue. Both the backing of China, and ASEAN’s reluctance to rock the boat, also make international pressure less influential in swaying the current trajectory into authoritarianism.
— Monovithya Kem (@MNVKem) November 18, 2017
What next for the Cambodian people?
One source of meaningful resistance could be the Cambodian people themselves. As Strangio points out, without a formal opposition, dictators lose the sentiment of the people and run the risk of becoming detached – an occurrence that may already be taking place.
Cambodia is a country changing rapidly, and how Hun Sen plans to meet demands for better governance, more jobs and better opportunity for ordinary people without a robust opposition is yet to be seen. In a country with strong labour unions, it’s possible that people may rise to protest just as they did in 2013. While it is unlikely we’ll see people take to the streets in mass anytime soon, Strangio believes that the majority of people in the country would passively support a movement of protest.
A significant portion of the population that voted for the CNRP are now left disillusioned with their past vote having counted for nothing, and no credible party worthy of their vote in 2018. As Monovithya Kem puts it:
“At the end of the day, the stakeholder that has the most influence in all of this is the Cambodian people. It’s up to them to accept the status quo or to resist it.”
Hun Sen may think that he has put an end to any challenge to his authority with the dissolution of the CNRP, but the impetus is now on him to keep the people of Cambodia satisfied or he could find that sustainable political change comes from below.
“You can dissolve an opposition party, but it’s impossible to dissolve people’s desire for change,” Strangio said. “How Hun Sen goes about meeting those desires is the key question going forward.”