The next year will be a crucial time in Cambodian politics, with two elections coming up this Sunday and in July 2018. Sunday’s seem the less important, but will be closely watched by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been bleeding consensus in the past few years, and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition group, whose leaders hope for a chance to corner the government.
On June 4, a dozen parties will compete for leadership of more than 1,600 communes across the country. Commune chiefs play a critical role in managing local issues and in normal circumstances the upcoming vote would be about local administration. But this time around it will be interpreted as an indicator of the popularity of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the man who has led Cambodia for 32 years, and of his chances of continuing to do so.
Hun Sen is used to winning, no matter what it takes, and has often displayed fine political instincts along with guile and a tendency to intimidate through violence. He started out as a member of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, rising quickly through the ranks, but then defected to Vietnam and was made foreign minister in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the regime installed after Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978. In 1985, still under Vietnamese supervision, he became Prime Minister and has since navigated through some of his country most convulsed years, often through pure political repression and threats against the opposition.
But he suffered an unexpected blow in 2013. The communal elections of 2012 had turned out just fine, with the incumbent CPP winning a comfortable 61 percent of the votes. The following year, they barely managed to scrape a out victory in a controversial national vote, picking 68 seats in the National Assembly against the 55 gathered by the CNRP. It was the worst showing since 1998 and one political opponents claimed was the result of widespread cheating.
Years of nepotism and widespread corruption had fed disenchantment in part of the population. Especially so among young Cambodians, who are better educated and have access to vastly more information than their predecessors thanks to the Internet. “People feel it has been enough for the current regime, so they demand for change. Voters will vote for change and a better life,” says Noan Sereiboth, a member of Politikoffee, a local political discussion forum.
Although Cambodia has come a long way in the past three decades, with leaps in poverty reduction and soaring economic growth, the kingdom remains hobbled by poor governance, ranking156th of 176 countries in Transparency International’s perceived corruption index.
There is no shortage of bad news when it comes to land confiscations, corruption and pesky deals with foreign investors, which often end up being connected to personalities at the top of the government. For example, a major player in sand-mining operations in Koh Kong province, where dredging has bankrupted thousands of fishermen, used to be CPP senator Ly Yong Phat. In a separate instance, 4,000 families were evicted from the shores of Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh to make way for an ambitious real estate project managed by Shukaku Inc, a company linked to Lao Meng Khin, another representative from the CPP.
According to an extensive report by anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness, members of Hun Sen’s family themselves hold business and political posts “across the state apparatus – in politics, the military, police, media, and charities – sectors that prop up the premier’s ruling party through propaganda, political donations or brute force.”
In the aftermath of the 2013 debacle, the CPP quickly took action to stop the hemorrhage of votes, stepping up pressure on political foes and harassing those who went too far in their criticism. “The more the opposition gains votes, the more severe oppression will be. Threats, jailings and intimidation have risen significantly,” says Cham Bunthet, a Policy Consultant and Advisor to Grassroots Democracy Party. The group was founded by Kem Ley, a well-known political commentator and activist who was murdered last July in Phnom Penh.
Cases of intimidation and worse have been numerous, including the exiling of Sam Rainsy, the former president of the CNRP who has been out of the country since 2015. One year later, Ny Chariya, the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee, and four members of the Cambodian Human Right and Development Association were arrested in connection with a sex scandal and have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year.
Hun Sen has also fallen back on the threat of civil war, one of his favorite cards. “The Cambodian People’s Party must win elections, every election. War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore,” the Prime Minister said in May, adding that the army would intervene should there be protests. Later last month, he again warned that “words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and goes to your homes and burns down your homes.”
Whether this cocktail of economic performance and repression will be enough to preserve the CPP’s hold on power remains to be seen, but observers think the incumbents have a good chance of securing this first round. The CPP has traditionally held sway over the rural population, mostly because the authorities can count on a network of patronage and connections with local leaders in the countryside. Moreover, with communal elections being perceived as a sideshow and people often being unable to move back to their home villages to vote, the CPP will likely be aided by a low turnover.
“The CNRP will gain the votes and will probably win more communes council chiefs comparing to 2012,” says Mr. Cham. “But I don’t thinnk CNRP can maintain the number of the votes – approximately 45 percent – they gained in the 2013 national elections.”