The death of democracy in Cambodia

While victory by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in Sunday’s general election was expected, the scale of the win was still shocking. The CPP claims to occupy every seat in Parliament. Democracy in that country has long been a ritual rather than a reality, but this campaign exposed the claims of representative government as empty. The people of Cambodia have no recourse other than protest, which will likely result in more pain for them. Much of the world, Japan included, sees in Cambodia a geopolitical struggle in which democratic ideals are subordinated to power politics.

Hun Sen is one of the world’s political survivors, having served as prime minister of Cambodia since 1985. He has maintained that position despite international and domestic turmoil — some of which he engineered. He has changed or ignored political rules when they did not suit him and used every tool of state power to vanquish his enemies. Consistent with that approach, elections are a formality and Sunday’s vote was no exception. Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the top opposition force, was arrested on charges of treason in September and he remains jailed.

At year’s end, the Supreme Court dissolved the party and barred top officials from running, ruling that they had conspired with foreign powers to stage a coup. When CNRP officials called for a boycott of the vote, they were fined and the government warned that failing to vote would be considered treason. The government also has shut down independent news media and blocked access to foreign websites that it considers too critical.

In this environment, the election outcome was ordained. The CPP said that it won 77.5 percent of the votes and Hun Sen claimed that turnout exceeded 80 percent. The government first announced that it won more than 100 seats in the legislature; a day after the vote, a government spokesperson said the CPP had won all 125 seats. The final results are to be published Aug. 15.

Sochua Ma, vice president of the CNPR (which exists in exile), called the vote a “sham election” and an “electoral circus,” adding that “29 July 2018 marked the death of democracy in Cambodia.” Many foreign governments agreed. The United States said the vote was “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people”; it called on the Cambodia government to end the ban on political opposition. The European Union said the “outcome lacks credibility.”

Japan has been conspicuously quiet. This country, which has been deeply involved in Cambodian politics since it oversaw the peace process and transition to democracy in the early 1990s, provided monitors for every election since 1993; this year, it did not. While encouraging Phnom Penh to hold a free and fair election, it has not publicly criticized it. Following Sunday’s vote, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo would refrain from commenting on the election “since our country did not send election monitors.”

For all the criticism, the CPP insists the outcome was correct. Hun Sen and his coterie consider all opposition foreign supported and sponsored. As a party spokesperson explained: “Leaders of the CNRP have spent two thirds of their lives overseas. They cannot claim to understand or represent the Cambodian people.” This outlook breeds confidence that only the CPP can claim to represent the Cambodian people.

The U.S. and the EU appear ready to impose sanctions. Washington is considering the expansion of visa restrictions while Brussels is reviewing the preferential access Cambodian goods get in the EU market. While this would be a blow to the economy — Cambodia exports about $4.3 billion worth of textile and textile-related goods to the EU — it would hurt workers the most.

While opposition leaders urge the country’s trading partners to take that step nevertheless, Japan is reluctant to do so. Japan has long seen Cambodia as an important partner: To complement its efforts to rebuild the country after the Cold War, Japan has contributed more than $2 billion for various projects. Earlier this year, Tokyo signed an agreement to provide more than $90 million for economic and electricity projects.

More worrisome than the loss of that investment is a fear that Japan’s loss would be China’s gain. China supports Phnom Penh with money and diplomatic cover. In addition to billions of dollars of aid and investment, China is Cambodia’s biggest trade partner. In return, China has received diplomatic support from Cambodia in ASEAN, for example, where Phnom Penh blocked the organization from criticizing Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Seductive as this realist prism is, it risks blowback. Hun Sen will not rule forever and when he passes, the Cambodian people will remember who stood with them and who stood by as democracy died.