The Blog

A Post-Election Tug-O'-War in Cambodia

The atmosphere across the nation is currently tense and fearful, with the part of the population in the capital Phnom Penh old enough to remember the Pol Pot genocide, venturing out only for necessities. They can't quite believe that the old CPP communists might actually lose the election.

July 28th 2013 saw the most important elections in Cambodia for a decade. The results still have not been announced and are due, according to an Election Commission spokesman, sometime between the 14th August and 3rd September or thereabouts. The atmosphere across the nation is currently tense and fearful, with the part of the population in the capital Phnom Penh old enough to remember the Pol Pot genocide, venturing out only for necessities. They can't quite believe that the old CPP communists might actually lose the election.

The reason this election is important is because Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 28 years and younger voters, lacking the fearfulness of the older part of the population, have voted in droves for the newly united opposition - the National Rescue Party led by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.

It should be remembered that Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge commander in the murderous communist Pol Pot regime backed by China - which slaughtered up a quarter of its own population. In 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, removed the Khmer Rouge from power and established a ten-year occupation, installing Hun Sen as Prime Minister - who had switched allegiance from China to Vietnam.

The last time Hun Sen faced the prospect of sharing power in 1997, the international community brokered a power sharing agreement with the royalist Funcinpec Party, which was soon scuppered by Hun Sen in a coup - followed by mass arrests and torture, and an assassination attempt on dissident minister Sam Rainsy, now co-opposition leader. Hence the fearfulness today of older voters.

Previous elections have been widely reported as 'fixed'. Locals called pre-election nights 'the night of the barking dogs' as CPP officials tour the country at night handing out bags of rice to ensure yet another Hun Sen victory, (and resulting in the ubiquitous guard dogs barking all night). However that is not to imply Hun Sen has no support - economic growth and an increasingly affluent urban middle class have added to traditional rural support for the communists to give the CPP a solid position. Hun Sen's claims to have brought stability are not without merit.

However, the younger generation in particular are less tolerant of corruption (Cambodia is the 18th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International), and for years the population have complained of illegal land grabs by regime stalwarts and well-connected businesses. Locals complain of mafia-like behaviour of CPP officials - both in central government ministries and by rural CPP-run commune committees. International organisations have been complaining about shady military-run businesses especially illegal logging. Recently a popular anti-illegal-logging activist was killed.

'Western', Korean and Chinese tourists who visit the Angkor Wat heritage site are often told that entry fees line the coffers of a well-connected businessman, and those that visit the beaches of Sihanoukville are told that the used hypodermic needles and other hospital waste that washes up on its shores are the result of a dodgy medical waste contract let to a regime supporter.

The 'Facebook generation', with its multitude of communication platforms, has been able to counter the creeping media monopoly of the CPP. Over the last decade journalists and human rights activists have been 'mysteriously' killed and anti-regime reporters shot dead. But increasing travel abroad and multi-channel communications have skirted round the CPP information monopoly.

The election last month has international dimensions too. China, having backed Pol Pot, has been fearful of potential bad publicity in being associated with political controversy in modern Cambodia, and doesn't wish to upset its current global PR offensive. This has helped the Vietnamese, and Hun Sen, but economic power and 'gifts' to the government have softened Cambodia-China relations and worried the Vietnamese. After Burma went cool on China, Beijing has been looking at a China-Lao-Cambodia route to the southern seas, and has subtly supported the Cambodian opposition. The US has developed cordial relations with Hun Sen - who spotted an opportunity to express support for the War on Terror. The US and Europeans, especially the British, have also been busy over offshore oil and gas opportunities.

So how will the election pan out and why is there a delay in announcing the result ? The opposition claim to have won 63 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. The CPP claim to have won 68 and the opposition only 55. In reply the opposition claim that, constitutionally, even if they have 55 seats that is enough to veto a CPP-only government. The opposition also claim to have hard evidence that around a million voters had their names taken off voter lists and that several hundred thousand found that ther vote had already been cast when they went to polling stations.

In the end matters will come to the Constitutional Council - which is supposed to be independent but in reality is composed of regime supporters. Hence the opposition have demanded the presence of international observers. Politicians from Norway flew in. On 9th August King Sihamoni echoed regime calls for negotiations before the results are announced.

One wonders, if the final composition of the National Assembly is the result of a negotiated end to this post-election Tug-O'-War, then what was the point of the election ? The political consequences may however be violence or a coup, in which case the Western powers may live to regret pursuing aims other than democracy and human rights.