Until the past week, Cambodia’s national elections, which will be held on July 28, 2013, looked utterly unexciting. The Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) of the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country in various positions, for nearly three decades, seemed destined to win an almost-total victory. The CPP, which has increased its share of parliamentary seats in each of the past three elections, had used various autocratic tools to ensure that the July 28th elections bore no resemblance to free and fair polls. Members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which holds a small minority of seats in parliament, were harassed and served with a buffet of civil and criminal complaints. Their supporters, particularly in rural areas, were attacked by pro-CPP thugs, while the state media, which dominates the country, has been used almost exclusively to promote Hun Sen and his allies, according to Human Rights Watch.
Then, last week, the election seemed to take a sudden turn. Under pressure from many democratic donors—despite strong economic growth, Cambodia’s budget is still highly dependent on aid—Hun Sen allowed opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the only viable other major national political figure, to return to the country. Rainsy had been living in exile while facing a variety of trumped-up offenses, and Hun Sen pushed King Sihamoni to grant him a royal pardon, which the pliant king immediately did. Now, Rainsy is returning to Cambodia this Friday and is investigating registering to run for an MP slot; even if he does not run, he will be heading up many rallies for the Cambodian National Rescue Party, and surely bringing a larger number of voters to the demonstrations and, possibly, the polls. Optimists are arguing that, with Rainsy back and a large percentage of Cambodian voters participating in their first election—more than half of registered voters are under 35 and do not remember the Khmer Rouge era, or Hun Sen’s role in ending it—the long-term rule of Hun Sen and his party may be threatened. Opposition supporters in Phnom Penh are jubilant, and young, middle-class Cambodians, who are increasingly using social media to organize for the opposition, think that all these new voters will be swayed by Rainsy’s charismatic presence and a desire for change.
Don’t count on it. For one, though Rainsy has more democratic credentials, Hun Sen is a far smarter politician than the opposition leader. Several times in the past, Hun Sen has had his government bring charges against Rainsy, only to withdraw them when Rainsy capitulated to him on various issues, or when Hun Sen needed the veneer of a real opposition to maintain the fiction that Cambodia is a democracy. This veneer now has been provided again by Rainsy. In addition, even if the new voters are energized by the arrival of Rainsy—who shows up very late in the election campaign game—their votes may not matter anyway. The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) the main nonpartisan election monitoring organization, has already said that this national election will be the least free of the five that have taken place in the past two decades, due to padded electoral rolls, voter intimidation, and other dirty tricks. The European Union, which sent monitors to the last election in 2008, has decided not to participate this time, concluding that this vote is beyond redemption.
Even if the vote was free and fair, would the opposition win? It would probably make even more inroads in Phnom Penh and some other larger towns, but it does not have the village by village grassroots organization of the CPP, which dominates local elections and local patronage.
In addition, although the past decade has seen widening economic inequality in Cambodia, wanton destruction of natural resources, and growing authoritarianism, with the king no longer able to serve as any kind of check on Hun Sen, the economy has, overall, grown very strongly for ten years. GDP per capita has risen from around $275 a decade ago to nearly $1000 today, a significant jump based on around seven percent annual growth. Hun Sen remains popular outside of Phnom Penh, largely because of this development. A May poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Cambodia found that 79 percent of Cambodians felt their country was headed in the right direction. So Hun Sen probably does not have to steal the election. Too bad that he will anyway.