CAMBODIA is no stranger to political turmoil and autocratic rule. And in the lead up to the July 29 general election, these old tropes are once again coming to the fore as Prime Minister Hun Sen tries desperately to cling to power.
There have been calls for a boycott, international backers are jumping ship, and rights groups are decrying the death of democracy.
But come what may, the 15 million people of Cambodia will be asked to vote in just over a month’s time.
Here’s everything you need to know in the run-up to this most predictable of ballots:
To say the key players in this general election are limited would be an understatement.
There is one – Hun Sen.
The current prime minister has made sure that he’s the only horse in the race and, barring a significant turn of events, he looks set to extend his 33-year rule.
At the age of 65, Hun Sen has been through the wars – literally.
He made his mark as a commander for the genocidal Khmer Rouge army but fled across the border to Vietnam as the deadly purges intensified, only to return two years later in 1979.
By 1985, at the tender age of 32, he was prime minister – a position that he has clung to with a vice like grip ever since.
Shirking off a hung parliament in the 1993 elections. Dodging accusations of torture and corruption. And overseeing a coup. His resilience has been tested but Hun Sen’s iron fist has continued to win out.
He has made it clear that he intends to rule for at least another 10 years. With his strict morning routine of early rising and hours on the treadmill, this old dog just might do it.
As there is only one key player, you’ve probably deduced by now that there’s not much in the way of opposition in this election.
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 Cambodian National Rescue Party (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.
Following an election that was a little too close for comfort, Hun Sen set about curtailing and eventually dismantling the increasingly popular CNRP.
The then leader, Sam Rainsy, was forced to step down in 2017 following an amendment barring convicted criminals from leading a political party. Rainsy had been tried in absentia on numerous defamation charges throughout his careers that he maintains were politically motivated.
Stepping into the top spot was Kem Sokha, but his leadership was short lived as Hun Sen had him arrested for treason in September.
Just two months later, a Supreme Court ruling assigned the CNRP to the history books. The only credible opposition party in the country was dissolved after Hun Sen’s government accused them of plotting to take power with the help of the United States. It was a move that Charles Santiago, Chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called “the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy.”
The court ruling included a five-year political ban for 118 of its members, rendering the opposition movement essentially dead.
From exile in France, Rainsy still makes his voice heard in Cambodian politics, calling for a boycott of the July 29 election and setting up the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), which seeks to increase international pressure on the Hun Sen regime.
On top of ensuring no credible opposition party existed, Hun Sen’s government also waged war on criticism and dissent. Among the victims were some of Cambodia’s most reputable media outlets and NGOs.
One of the most notable was the shuttering of The Cambodia Daily back in September. The newspaper was forced to close its doors after it was saddled with a US$6.3 million tax bill. The publication’s final swan-song was a front page that read, “Descent into outright dictatorship.”
Around the same time, the government ordered the closure of more than a dozen radio stations that it said had violated broadcasting regulations. These stations were among the few outlets that regularly featured opposition politicians, and licensed programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which are both funded by the US government and have been accused of tax crimes of their own.
The Phnom Penh Post, the last remaining independent paper in the country, fell to a new buyer with connections to both the Cambodian and Malaysian government.
Following the acquisition, key staff were immediately fired – including Editor-in-Chief Kay Kimsong – prompting a staff exodus that stripped the paper to its bones and had Human Rights Watch decrying the “staggering blow to press freedom.”
Mr. Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, has just been fired from his position, according to reporter there. All staffs are protesting. So sad to hear that! #PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/y4KQTacxHB
— Chandara Yang (@chandararfa) May 7, 2018
Following the dissolution of the CNRP, it wasn’t long before international backers were jumping ship. Both the US and the EU withdrew their support for the election.
Both governments said that the crackdown on the opposition had essentially eliminated any viable challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling CPP and called the legitimacy of the ballots into question.
They made Kem Sokha’s release, the reinstatement of the CNRP, and an end to restrictions on the media and civil society, preconditions to their participation.
But the ultimatum didn’t work. China stepped into the breach to shower Cambodia in cash and voting equipment, including computers, printers, photocopiers, cameras, ballot boxes, and voting booths.
The generosity didn’t stop there. China’s Premier Li Keqiang has signed numerous agreements worth billions of dollars to develop Cambodia’s infrastructure, agriculture and health system. Most recently, Beijing pledged US$100 million to help modernise the military, furthering bolstering Hun Sen’s grip and ensuring his immunity to western sanctions.
Will it be free and fair?
The fairly universally accepted answer is no.
With Hun Sen essentially running a one-horse race and press freedom on lockdown, it’s difficult to see how a fair election can be salvaged from the wreckage.
Transparency International Cambodia (TI Cambodia) would like to inform the public and relevant stakeholders that TI Cambodia will not participate in monitoring the upcoming national election scheduled for 29 July 2018. #Cambodia #NationalElection2018 #TICambodia pic.twitter.com/p3e5uGDU6y
— TI Cambodia (@ticambodia) June 20, 2018
Corruption watchdog Transparency International announced Wednesday that it will not be monitoring the national elections, citing the “political environment and conditions” that have made overseeing the polls “impossible.”
Executive Director at Transparency International Cambodia told Asian Correspondent:
“Unless there is a solution to have a genuine political competition with the inclusion of the former CNRP politicians in an acceptably decent form in the upcoming election, it is hard to foresee credibility and legitimacy in the elections.”