Cambodian democracy: The beginning or the end?

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the face of growing opposition, Hun Sen needs to deal with the challenge of a politicised population. But he may not choose the democratic route.

By Oliver Ward

Hun Sen’s government took a strong hit in the communal elections last month. Is this a sign of the progress towards a fully democratised Cambodia? Or of the imminent destruction of Cambodian democracy?

Hun Sen’s government edged out an election win

Despite the win for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), it is the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) who is celebrating. In an election where 90% of the population voted, the CNPR increased their number of councils from just 40, to over 400.

CNPR the Deputy President, Kem Sokha, believes that they can carry the momentum into the 2018 General Election. “The support for CNRP has been stronger than at any other time, both in the city and in rural areas,” he said.

The growing strength of the CNRP has prompted celebration from many pro-democracy organisations. Nem Chhoeung, President of the Khmer Town Association, said, “In the game of democracy when two parties have comparable strength, it is hard to abuse or use violence against the other side.”

Opposition to the CPP are growing in strength

In another demonstration of solidarity and strength against the CPP, thousands of opposition supporters descended on Tram Kak district to mark the year anniversary of Kem Ley’s murder. Kem Ley was a political analyst and a widespread critic of both Hun Sen’s government and the opposition.

The public and opposition group suspect the government are behind the killing. Oeuth Ang, a former soldier, claims to have killed Ley over unpaid debts, but his confession has done nothing to curb opposition suspicion. The further fuelled this suspicion, despite a large CNRP presence.

Hun Sen’s power has been weakened but he will not go down lightly

As Hun Sen’s power is weakened, he becomes more dangerous. On May 25th, just two weeks before the vote, he accused the opposition of planning a revolution and announced he was prepared to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to maintain power.

The vague threats of violent actions show a leader clinging to power in the face of rising opposition. In the last two years, he has jailed more than 27 political activists and human rights defenders and put hundreds more on trial in a desperate attempt to shore up his power base.

The more Hun Sen sees his power eroded, the more he wants to clamp down on Cambodian democracy. Back in February of 2017,  he passed 22 amendments to the Law on Political Parties, allowing the Supreme Court and Ministry of the Interior to suspend and dissolve political parties.

The CPP is not a stranger to bypassing the democratic process. In 1997 Hun Sen’s troops struck against Prince Norodom Ranariddh, his main political rival. They killed his command force and eliminated the political threat.

Part of the issue is that Hun Sen does not need democracy. China is happy to financially back autocratic regimes. If he feels backed into a corner, Hun Sen could easily dissolve opposition parties and rule as an autocracy.

The vultures may be circling over Hun Sen, smelling blood in the air, but he is far from ready to fall. He has the weight of Cambodian law on his side. With it, he wields the power to crush the democratic process and remove any semblance of democracy in the country. In one sense, the elections represent hope for a future, progressive Cambodia with a vocal opposition, but in another, they threaten to send Cambodia back to the dark days of an authoritarian government.