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.