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Watershed Election in Cambodia?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
July 31, 2013

Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) makes a point as he addresses reporters at his party's headquarters in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2013. Cambodia's main opposition party CNRP rejected election results given by the government, which said long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen's party had won, and called for an inquiry into what it called massive manipulation of electoral rolls. (Pring Samrang/Courtesy Reuters) Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) makes a point as he addresses reporters at his party's headquarters in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2013. Cambodia's main opposition party CNRP rejected election results given by the government, which said long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen's party had won, and called for an inquiry into what it called massive manipulation of electoral rolls. (Pring Samrang/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, in advance of Cambodia’s national elections, I noted that the election was a foregone conclusion, given that the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by increasingly autocratic prime minister Hun Sen, had awarded itself so many advantages in advance of the actual voting day. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party managed to overcome many of these obstacles, and the tally of fifty out of 120 parliamentary seats that it has won—the tally of CNRP seats that the government’s spokesman admitted the opposition won—is shockingly high, given the huge barriers placed in its way. These barriers included possible CNRP voters simply being turned away from registering to vote, hundreds of thousands of people deleted from the voter rolls, state media devoting almost no time to anyone but the CPP in the run-up to the election,  attacks on CNRP supporters, and much more thuggery.

Now, CNRP leaders are alleging that the opposition actually should have won many more seats, if not for massive vote-rigging and other shenanigans on Election Day itself. They want an international inquiry into the election. The fact that the government refuses and wants to swear in a new cabinet as soon as possible suggests that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his allies know, too, that they had to scramble to get enough fixes in on Election Day, since they were confident that their pre-vote intimidation, and Hun Sen’s record of delivering peace and growth, would win them a huge majority of voters.

More than any election since 1993, when a huge number of Cambodians came out to vote for the first election in years and actually voted for the opposition Funcinpec Party but found that Hun Sen was able to bludgeon his way into the leadership anyway, this election shows that the Cambodian people have not lost faith in the democratic process. It shows Cambodians are not willing to ignore the predatory elite developing in their country, are not willing to accept growth that also has come with widening inequality, and are not willing to simply vote for Hun Sen because he is strong and has provided a measure of stability after the killing fields.

Unfortunately, Hun Sen is likely to get his cabinet sworn in anyway, and to continue serving what is now the longest term in office of any current leader in Asia. Despite increasingly violent protests in Cambodia, the U.S. and other major donors to the country have refused to call Hun Sen’s bluff and push for a serious recount – even though Cambodia is hardly a strategic asset like Egypt, where (though I don’t agree) one could at least make the case that despite the military’s bloody behavior, the country is too important to downgrade ties and cut off assistance.

Unfortunately, this weak approach to Cambodia is not unusual; for years, the U.S (other than a few Cambodia hard-liners in Congress) have been accepting whatever Hun Sen does, and continuing to provide substantial aid to the country. Now, the U.S., like most other outside actors, has simply called for Cambodia’s own election authorities to investigate any irregularities, knowing full well that Cambodia’s own official election authority, like every other major institution in the country, is controlled by the CPP and is unlikely to take any of the opposition’s complaints seriously. So expect Hun Sen to be at the next U.S.-ASEAN summit, and top American leaders to shake his hand.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Ten Points

    FYI – There are 123 Parliamentary seats in Cambodia, not 120. As for the part about “Unfortunately, this weak approach to Cambodia is not unusual; for years, the U.S have been accepting whatever Hun Sen does.” Well much of that is do to one mans influence. Please research Brett Sciaroni, who is the chairman of the American Cambodian Business Council. Mr. Sciaroni is the former legal counsel to U.S President Ronald Reagan and is famous for helping to legally justify the Iran-Contra operations. Anyways, since 1993 he has been best friends with Hun Sen, justifying many of his actions, and opening the door for US companies to invest in Cambodia on really good terms. Mr Sciaroni has single handily softening the US governments policy towards Cambodia. As late as this July 2013 the US Embassy of Cambodian was doing a joint speaking tour to Long Beach, California and Washington, D.C.

  • Posted by Ten Points

    It is also important to look at these facts about the July 28th Elections in Cambodia. I mention it because it is not really covered in the media and by NGOs, mostly due to the extreme sensitivity of the issue. Cambodians of Vietnamese descent who had the legal right to vote were intimidated and blocked from voting throughout country during the July 28th elections. CNRP supporters used Facebook to coordinate these actions, giving exact details of where Vietnamese where, and making calls for people to meet there and block them from voting. Many of these postings included rampant use of the racial slur “Yuon” against the Vietnamese, and stating that the Vietnamese must be kicked out of Cambodia immediately, some going as far to say kill all those dogs. Unfortunately Sam Rainsy and CNRP in general stayed completely silent when all this racial hatred was being made. Even Mr. Rainsy himself used the derogatory term “Yuon” during one of his campaign rallies just last week. This illegal disenfranchisement must be investigated and the U.S. government must tell CNRP that what its supporters did is not acceptable. Free and Fair elections are for everyone. CNRP and its supporters must also refrain from using Xenophobic language against the Vietnamese community in Cambodia as well. http://www.cambodiadaily.com/elections/ethnic-vietnamese-cambodians-prevented-from-voting-in-kandal-37225/ http://www.cambodiadaily.com/elections/vietnamese-embassy-official-criticizes-cnrps-racial-rhetoric-36951/

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