While 20 different political parties will vie for votes at Cambodia’s national elections on July 29, the contest will be by any honest measure a one-horse race.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), now in power for more than 33 consecutive years, eliminated the only serious competition ahead of the polls but will be hard-pressed to portray the elections as a legitimate expression of the popular will.
The 19 other parties contesting the elections are seen by many as either proxies set up by the ruling party in an attempt to give the election a veneer of legitimacy, or too small and with too few followers to carry any seats.
Hun Sen received a big wake-up call at the last national elections in 2013 when the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won more than 44% of the popular vote, a tally that gave it 55 of 123 seats in the National Assembly.
The CNRP again won nearly 44% of the vote in local-level commune elections in June 2017, a clear signal the party had maintained popular momentum while in opposition.
However, Hun Sen’s move away from democracy and march towards a one-party, military-dominated state started last year with the arrest of the CNRP’s leader on dubious treason charges. Shortly thereafter the opposition party was dissolved by the Supreme Court and its members banned from politics.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who has been held in a remote high security prison since his arrest last year, has been denied bail and has yet to be tried. A climate of fear has since settled over the country, with those who make critical statements about the government at risk of arrest or harassment.
Most of the leaders of the dissolved opposition party have fled overseas, out of fear of facing the same fate as their leader – arrested, denied bail and being held in jail for an indefinite time without trial.
Any local media that had been critical of the ruling party or dared to expose the rampant official corruption in the country has either been shut down or taken over by alleged proxies of those in power.
It’s all set the stage for a rigged electoral contest, critics say.
US-based Cambodian academic Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy”, says he would not be surprised if some of the small parties contesting the election win some seats. He sees the small parties being set up in a bid by Hun Sen and the CPP to give the elections some credibility.
“The CPP wants to make this look like some kind of competition, and if it gets all the seats, then no fun and no fair,” he said.
“Of course, this isn’t remotely like introducing risk in the French saying: ‘To win without risk is to triumph without glory.’ They’re perfectly happy to win without risk and to triumph without glory, but it’s also important for the election to ‘look the part.’”
There is, however, one party contesting the elections that was once a force to be reckoned with in Cambodia: Funcinpec. The party won a national election in 1993 and co-shared power with Hun Sen and the CPP until the latter staged a bloody coup in 1997.
Founded and headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, Funcinpec’s popularity has fallen over the years: at the last national elections in 2013, the party failed to win a single seat.
Ranariddh’s and the party’s fortunes took a turn for the better late last year when the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and gave its 41 seats left vacant in the National Assembly to Funcinpec representatives.
Many suspect the gifted seats were a reward to the Prince and his party for officially lodging a complaint against the CNRP with the court after party leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason.
In an interview this writer conducted with Ranariddh at his home in Phnom Penh last year, he danced around the question of why his party lodged the complaint, which many believed was done at the behest of the CPP. The Prince claimed he was in hospital having an operation when his party lodged the complaint.
After winning no seats at the last election in 2013, many doubt Funcinpec will bounce back in a significant way on July 29.
“A friend actually said the CNRP should have its supporters vote for Funcinpec so it could win and then be dealt a final blow by the CPP. This dark, gallows humor is where we’re at now in Cambodia,” said US-based Cambodian academic Sophal Ear.
Ranariddh’s campaign suffered a tragic setback, however, when his wife was killed in a car accident on June 17 and the Prince was airlifted to Bangkok for treatment of his injuries.
With no serious competition, Hun Sen is no doubt concerned that his assured victory will not be recognized by the international community. Indeed, he faces the rising prospect of punitive Western sanctions against his anti-democratic crackdown.
Sanctions on specific individuals in his ruling party have already been imposed by the US government, including freezes on assets and personal bank accounts and travel restrictions.
A low voter turnout could also spell trouble for Hun Sen and his party. With nearly half the country’s voters supporting the opposition CNRP at the 2013 national elections and last year’s local elections, the ruling party has been pushing hard to get people to vote.
While voting is not compulsory in Cambodia, opposition leaders in exile have called for a “clean finger” boycott campaign – a spin on the fact voters must dip their finger in indelible ink at polling booths to show they have cast their ballot. The call to shun the polls has been met with threats by Hun Sen and CPP members.
“I don’t think the threats against clean fingers will work. What are they going to do to people whose fingers are clean? Are they going to go Khmer Rouge on them and cut their fingers off?,” said Sophal Ear. “Clean fingers or not, people can just shut their doors and stay at home that day.”
Neither the US nor EU will send monitors to inspect the polls, a sign that West has already cast its vote on the polls’ legitimacy. Only representatives from China, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia will be present on election day.
“In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happens in this fake election. You can have 50,000 observers. You can have 500,000 observers,” said Sophal Ear. “No one cares. The main opposition party is not on the ballot. What does it mean to win an election when your main opponent has been dissolved?”
One senior official in a government ministry who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told Asia Times that CPP party members and high ranking military officials have targeted country areas where the CNRP had a strong following to harass and monitor its past supporters. He said people are being told they must vote on July 29.
“The intimidation has reached new levels,” the CPP member said. “There are now spies everywhere and if a former opposition supporter in a village gets a visitor from outside his village, two minutes later someone is knocking on the door and asking what they are talking about.”
While no one is taking bets on who will win, many are speculating on what price the country will pay for staging a one-horse electoral race voters at home and observers in the international community already view as unfree and unfair.
Alan Parkhouse is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times.