How democracy died in Cambodia
Premier Hun Sen sated his autocratic tendencies in 2017 by dissolving the opposition, but his nation's political future is still wholly undecided
The Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) demise was in retrospect a foregone conclusion.
But the future shape of Cambodia’s politics is still undecided with what will be widely perceived as rigged elections and a possible dynastic political succession in the year ahead.
The nation’s only viable opposition party’s fate was first put in doubt in February, when the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government controversially amended a law to automatically dissolve political parties whose leaders had criminal convictions.
Sam Rainsy, the opposition politician who fled into self-exile in late 2015, stepped down as the CNRP’s president due to past convictions against him, a move that only temporarily forestalled the dissolution of the party he co-founded.
Kem Sokha, the party’s other founder who spent most of 2016 hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid trial in a politically motivated “prostitution” case, stepped up to lead the party into crucial commune elections in June.
The CNRP polled surprisingly well considering the CPP’s entrenched grass roots machinery, winning 43.8% of the popular vote. That result, some analysts suggest, may have been the political inflection point for the anti-democratic crackdown that ensued.
On September 3, Kem Sokha was arrested for treason on the spectacular accusation he was plotting with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP-led government. At year’s end, he remains in prison awaiting trial.
On November 16, the Supreme Court ruled to formally dissolve the CNRP after the Interior Ministry claimed without credible corroborating evidence it was fomenting a “color revolution” to topple the government.
The court decision banned 118 of the party’s senior officials from politics for five years and saw its parliamentary seats distributed to smaller parties. The CNRP’s elected officials, including recently inaugurated commune chiefs and councilors, were court ordered to either defect to the CPP or lose their posts.
The decision was the coup de grace in a wider clampdown. An independent American-owned newspaper was closed in September while radio stations were prevented from broadcasting popular Radio Free Asia and Voice of America programs.
Two former RFA reporters were later arrested for alleged espionage after the station shuttered its bureau under heavy government pressure in September. The arrests, based on the notion sending information to overseas news outlets constituted espionage, had a chilling effect on all media.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s once-vocal civil society of homegrown nongovernmental organizations, has since gone mute on concerns they too could face anti-state charges for criticizing the CPP and its policies.
So far, there have been no public protests against the CNRP’s dissolution, small wonder given the government’s stern warnings against unrest. Some CNRP supporters say they will boycott the next general election, scheduled for July 2018; others remain undecided on their next steps.
CNRP senior politicians, most of whom are now in self-imposed exile, have entrusted their hope instead in the international community to muster a response.
The US and European Union (EU) reacted angrily to the CNRP’s dissolution, with both threatening sanctions. This month, the EU suspended its support of the National Election Committee, saying in a statement that without the CNRP’s participation there is no “possibility of a credible electoral process.”
There are also murmurings of the EU withdrawing Cambodia from its “Everything But Arms” scheme, which provides tariff and tax-free trade. The move, if taken, would hit major export sectors, including the crucial garment sector. Targeted sanctions on senior CPP officials involved in the crackdown could also be on the cards.
If such threats are realized, Cambodia can turn to its deep-pocketed patron China to provide loans and aid to buffer some of the economic blow. Russia, meanwhile, has seized on the diplomatic fallout to make inroads, including a vow to send observers to rubberstamp July’s general election as credible.
There thus appears little chance Hun Sen’s government or its influenced judiciary will reverse the CNRP’s dissolution before next year’s polls. Neither is it likely that one of the country’s smaller parties would be able to create the grass roots political structures needed to compete effectively at a national level.
The CNRP’s appeal derived mainly from its two leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, both viewed as charismatic politicians offering a credible alternative to the CPP.
Few, if any, of the remaining smaller parties have leaders or senior members who capture the popular imagination as agents of political change.
The CPP and CNRP won respectively 48.8% and 44.4% of the vote at 2013’s general election. Combined, numerous smaller parties notched just over 7% of the vote.
Funcinpec, which was handed 41 of the CNRP’s 55 seats in the National Assembly last month despite winning a paltry 3% of the vote in 2013, has already said it prefers to be a “minority” rather than “opposition” party.
2017 may have been the year that Hun Sen’s CPP, ruling consecutively since 1979, finally sated its autocratic urges. Both can point to a fast-growing economy to justify the lurch back to de facto one party rule.
Despite this year’s political tremors, Cambodia boasted one of the region’s fastest growing economies, with gross domestic product (GDP) expanding by 7%, according to a World Bank report published in November.
The multilateral lender forecasts Cambodia’s economy will expand 6.9% next year, though that projection likely doesn’t factor in the possible imposition of export-curbing sanctions by the US or EU.
“The outlook remains positive,” the World Bank report stated, while the institution’s country representative, Inguna Dobraja, said Cambodia even “appears to be on the verge of climbing up the manufacturing value chains.”
Other analysts believe political continuity is good for business. “A 2018 election victory for the CPP is widely regarded by many in the business community as the best-case scenario for stability and business continuity in 2018 and beyond,” a recent report by the risk advisory firm Access Asia Consulting said.
Indeed, a higher economic tide has allowed for more state spending, with an extra US$1 billion earmarked for disbursal in 2018. The education, health and defense ministries will see the largest budgetary boosts. Hun Sen has promised free healthcare and subsidized transport to large sections of the workforce.
The country’s 700,000-plus garment workers, a politically and economically important constituency viewed as aligned with the CNRP, have also been promised a hike in their minimum wage, expected to hit US$170 per month in 2018 from US$153 at present.
Hun Sen and his CPP have long campaigned on the notion that they first established and have since maintained the stability needed for economic progress after decades of civil war and deprivation.
The CPP government proudly claims it has reduced the national poverty level from 47.8% in 2007 to 13.5% in 2014. Just 0.7% of the population now lives in “severe destitution”, according to a World Bank report published this month.
The report, however, added that half of the population remains “economically vulnerable” to even the slightest of downturns, a reflection of the country’s inequitable distribution of recent economic gains.
Mey Kalyan, a senior adviser to the Supreme National Economic Council, told the Phnom Penh Post in August: “At this speed of development, the fact is that lower income earners benefit more slowly while the rich benefit at a faster speed.”
Despite perceptions CPP-aligned clans and families have benefited disproportionately from the country’s recent success, the widening wealth gap is not expected to spark social instability any time soon. New political dynamics, however, could raise that risk.
Political analysts have long debated when, not if, Hun Sen will hand power to one of his children. Most speculated the likely successor would be Hun Manet, the premier’s eldest, US-educated son.
But there are new indications the country’s long-time ruler might opt instead for his youngest son, Hun Many, currently a parliamentarian and head of the CPP’s youth association.
If true, it would consolidate the family’s influence over three key areas of Cambodian society, namely politics, the military and business.
Hun Manet is a senior officer in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces with symbolic fighting experience along the Thai border, while Hun Mana, the prime minister’s daughter, runs various businesses across the family’s vast holdings.
Despite Hun Sen’s vow this year to rule for another decade, many believe the dynastic handover to one of his children will likely take place after the CPP wins next year’s largely unopposed election.
That political succession likely explains the moves against the CNRP, which while sacrificing the country’s reputation as a nominal democracy, ensures the unchallenged position Hun Sen will require to step down safely as the world’s longest-serving leader.