Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) poses for a picture during a ceremony at a compound of factories in Phnom Penh on September 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Hun Sen poses for a picture embracing factory workers during a ceremony at a compound of garment plants in Phnom Penh, September 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

As Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled last week to dissolve the country’s main opposition party, Prime Minister Hun Sen spent the day handing out US$2.50 cash envelopes to garment factory workers in the national capital.

All the premier asked for in return was a vote for his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at elections scheduled for July 2018. Without the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the race, the cash handouts are as much about maintaining stability as ensuring a no-contest victory.

The CPP, in power consecutively since 1979, has a history of oppression on one hand, and crowd-pleasing handouts on the other. In the Cambodian countryside, pro-government activists refer to the CPP as “the party that gives life.” Outright vote-buying, meanwhile, has been part of the party’s winning electoral strategy for decades.

US broadcaster Voice of America reported this month that the CPP has commenced a new membership campaign that asks households to become “CPP families.” Party activists in mainly rural areas go door-to-door asking people to sign a “CPP family book” to register.

“CPP families” receive three cash payments per year; in exchange, they are expected to vote for the CPP at all elections. To ensure they do, each family book also includes photographs of the signatories so that they are easily identifiable.

This was conducted at the same time as the National Election Committee’s (NEC) registration process for next July’s general election, which ended on November 9.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to garment workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The CPP’s re-registration campaign – at least before the CNRP’s dissolution – is likely motivated by CPP concerns that it is losing popular support.

The party officially has 5.3 million registered members, but only 3.5 million people voted for it at June’s commune election, at which the CNRP made significant gains. The NEC said this month that there are 9.8 million registered voters nationwide.

Some analysts predicted the CNRP would have won next year’s general election if they were held free and fair, which is now a moot point with the party’s court-ordered dissolution.

The CNRP was accused by the Interior Ministry of working with foreign powers, mainly the US, to overthrow the government and foment a “color revolution.” CNRP president, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September on dubious related treason charges and currently awaits trial in prison. Its former leader, Sam Rainsy, fled into exile in late 2015.

The party’s dissolution banned 188 CNRP officials from political activity for five years, while the party’s 489 commune chiefs, elected at June’s election, were stripped of their positions. The decision effectively wiped out the three million votes the CNRP won at the 2013 election.

Roughly the same number voted for the CNRP at June’s commune election, which boasted its highest turnout of voters in decades. It showed Cambodians nationwide are highly interested in politics, and to placate these now disenfranchised voters the government is scrambling to offer something in return.

Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy 

Before general elections, the CPP tends to make grandiose promises to small constituencies to build new schools, hospitals, roads or bridges. Usually half of the money for these public works is committed upfront, with the other half contingent on that commune voting for the CPP.

The money for this either comes from a fund the CPP amasses in the years between elections, often from “donations” by well-connected businesspeople, or from state coffers. More state money will soon be pumped into the CPP’s electoral cause.

In October, the Council of Ministers approved a state budget for 2018 which will increase spending to US$6 billion, up from this year’s US$5 billion. The National Assembly, emptied of 55 CNRP lawmakers, passed it without challenge the day after the CNRP’s dissolution.

Increased spending on education, health and defense was to be expected. More money for the military is needed if the CPP is to make sure generals remain loyal and ensure stability after the CNRP’s dissolution. So far, there are no indications of any top brass siding with the opposition party.

Extra funds are also needed for a host of new social programs the prime minister and leading government officials have promised in recent months.

A woman working at a money exchange shows 500 Cambodian riel notes. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

As Hun Sen toured Phnom Penh’s textile factories, he reminded workers of the vows his CPP made in August to the country’s 600,000-plus garment workers.

These include free health care, pregnancy care, free public transport in the capital and a rise to their minimum wage. The populist policies are expected to be implemented early next year.

Added to these are tax breaks for anyone who earns less than US$300 per month, higher salaries for civil servants, and a new national health care system.

For some analysts, Hun Sen’s government is responding to the wishes of the public by introducing popular reforms. Others, however, say they are populist maneuvers that risk taking Cambodia even further into debt.

The government has said it will borrow an addition US$1.4 billion for next year’s 20% higher budget, bringing the national debt to US$7.6 billion. Analysts say it’s not an unmanageable level, yet, but could become problematic if the borrowing trend is sustained to maintain ever-growing populist policies.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after casting his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

Some political observers believe that the CPP is belatedly offering such policies to steal a march from the CNRP, which has long and successfully campaigned on social reform and redistribution of Cambodia’s new wealth.

A few months after the 2013 general election, which the CPP nearly lost to the CNRP, the government announced that it would enact five of the seven pledges on which the CNRP had campaigned.

These included raises to garment factory workers’ minimum wage, higher salaries for civil servants, and a new health insurance scheme. Before that election, the CPP government had said many of these policies were unfeasible.

The CPP’s flip-flop has aimed to satisfy key constituencies, not least garment workers, who along with the trade union movement have historic ties to the CNRP and represent one of the now defunct party’s major support bases, by co-opting the CNRP’s policies.

But even with the CNRP dissolved and the government’s generous hand-outs, it’s not clear yet disenfranchised CNRP supporters will switch over to the CPP by next July. And a low voter turnout will be yet another vote against the democratic legitimacy of what is shaping into a CPP-bought election.