POST TIME: 6 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 5 September, 2018 09:32:17 PM
One-party rule returning to Cambodia?
The excessive misuse of the state machinery to control the entire election process has earned the Sen Hun government nothing but serious credibility crisis that will haunt it for the next five years

One-party rule returning to Cambodia?

Cambodia is well on its way to witness a return to one-party rule for the next five years at least, under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been running this country for the last 33 years. For all practical purposes, Cambodia’s July 29 general election itself was over before it began. There was virtually“ one horse race” after the main opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by the Supreme Court on the pretext that it had conspired with the United States to overthrow the Hun Sen government, its leader Kem Sokha was jailed as his supporters fled, and a crackdown on independent media followed. Nonetheless, the glowing accounts of the fairy tale success of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which wonall the 125 contested seats of the National Assembly, have been tarnished by the allegations of blatant rigging and state-sponsored manipulation. Reportedly, the authorities did everything possible to completely hijack the electoral process to ensure that Hun Sen and his CPP register a comprehensive victory and completely plug the remotest possibility of any divergent voice in the assembly.

From outlawing the CNRP, the only visible opposition party, disqualifying its 118 members for five years, launching sweeping crackdown against the non-governmental organizations, rights groups and independent media, to actually voter intimidation and vote-buying, the Hun Sen regime resorted to all sort of nefarious techniques to manipulate every inch of the electoral process. The CPP eventually contested the ballot along with 19 other parties, none of which were particularly critical of the government. According to National Election Committee (NEC), the CPP grabbed all assembly seats and took 4.8 million of 6.9 million votes. As expected, the response from the international community has been split. Western governments expressed stern condemnations of what had occurred. Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States have expressed serious reservations and profound disappointment on the lack of genuine competition and the absence of opposition from the whole equation, which raised questions about the credibility of the results. While some regional countries and populist European leaders have endorsed the result.

Apart from Western states, the Southeast Asian civil society groups were quite vocal against the “programmed election”. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued the most forthright statement, noting: “Hun Sen has clearly been engaged in a desperate bid to try to legitimize these elections, including by shipping in international observers with questionable democratic credentials, and by threatening people to vote. But nothing can take away from the fact that this was a sham election.” But the irony of the course is that Prime Minister Hun Sen did not need to go that far to ensure his electoral victory because all the independent and international observers had declared him favourite to win this election.The CPP is deeply rooted in the country and its extensive party machinery is sophisticated, relatively speaking. Particularly in the rural areas, the popularity of Hun Sen is still intact where an older generation still remembers that Hun Sen ended more than three decades of war to start a phase of peace and economic growth. They still vote for him.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) surprised everyone in the last competitive elections in 2013 by making significant ground with 44 per cent of the popular vote, restricting the CPP’s vote share to 48 per cent.

In this election, Hun Sen and the CPP were determined to pull out all the stops to prevent the repetition of the humiliating episode of 2013.And the years of CPP planning to offset the shocking fiasco of the 2013 elections, including the heavy-handed repression leading up to the poll, would have arguably made it exceedingly difficult for any opponent to win even if the rules had otherwise been made to appear fairer than they had. The CPP would probably have won anyway. But that now remains a moot point. The excessive misuse of the state machinery to control the entire election process has earned the Sen Hun government nothing but serious credibility crisis that will haunt it for the next five years. In fact, the re-election of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP contributes to the growing global democratic dilemma..

Interestingly, in order to add a kind of veneer of legitimacy to his new government, Sen Hun is planning to offer the leaders of all the 19 opposition parties some role in his administration. According to some media reports, Sen Hun is considering a proposal to offer positions as government advisors or senior posts in various ministries to all the leaders from the opposition parties which contested this year’s election. This is definitely shrewd move to muffle the possibility of any CNRP-led resistance movement. So far, the Sen Hun government has taken advantage of the retreat of leading democracies to employ flagrant repression to squeeze opponents, stifle media freedom and compromise rules-based institutions. Sen Hun is banking on his old friends like China, Japan and Russia to provide the support to carry on with the business as usual. However, the CPP’s victory does not bode well for Cambodian democracy in the long run. Given the failure of international sanctions to have any impact, it will not be a surprise if Cambodia will slide further into electoral authoritarianism in the coming years.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist writing exclusively for The Independent