Hun Sen’s unconvincing defence of multiparty democracy

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hun Sen claims to be an advocate for multiparty democracy. His actions suggest the opposite is true. He is a dictator pretending to be a democrat.


Recent events in Malaysia proved how unpredictable elections can be. The opposite is true in in Cambodia. There, Hun Sen has all but guaranteed his re-election on July 29. With the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gone, the way is clear. The Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will prevail.

Hun Sen has tightened his grip on power to the extent that there is no longer any credible opposition. He claims to believe in multiparty democracy. At the same time, analysts think his control over Cambodia makes him a dictator. The more he acts and speaks like a dictator, does it follow that he has now assumed that mantle?

The fallout from his dissolution of the CNRP continues

Hun Sen justified removing the CNRP by claiming they were working with the US to overthrow him. There remains no evidence that this was the case. He knew they had enough support to win an election. Therefore, he set about destroying them.

Now, ex-CNRP members – some in exile – are urging voters to boycott the election. Hun Sen claims this is illegal and has threatened action against those speaking out. In Cambodia abstaining is not illegal. In legal terms, Hun Sen cannot punish them if they stay away from the polling booths.

He looks set to continue his pursuit of the CNRP and the movement that grew out of it, the CNRM. While he may lose the war of words over boycotts, it will have little impact on his chances of election. However, those in exile are getting their message across. Teachers confirmed they would boycott the vote. They damaged Hun Sen’s attempts to legitimise the election.

Questions arose after 21 parties registered for the general election

His claims that he is a supporter of multiparty democracy are laughable. He cited the fact that 21 parties tried to register for the election. The majority of these parties are insignificant and will not garner much support. Some are also pro-government. Hun Sen faced accusations about these parties. Critics claim they create an illusion of credible opposition.

Hun Sen denied these claims. Former CNRP head Sam Rainsy called the other 20 parties in the election “firefly parties”. The truth lies somewhere between those views. Parties such as Dharmacracy and Grassroots Democracy distanced themselves from the CPP. William Guang, a critic of the government, heads the Khmer Will party. These parties may not win many votes, but it is incorrect to call them pro-CPP.

Cambodia is fast losing support and credibility

Hun Sen made an impact with his power grab both inside and outside of Cambodia. The European Union withdrew donor support for the election. The US State Department condemned his destruction of the CNRP. Cambodia faced economic sanctions.

Independent observers said they are unlikely to track the election. Even if the CNRP were present, Cambodia would fall short of meeting criteria for a free and fair election. Rainsy said that “everyone knows” that the elections will be neither free nor fair.

That will not bother Hun Sen. He will take the lack of independent monitoring as a positive. He does not need much more help, but there is now little in his way to falsify election results if he so chooses.

Hun Sen is using some old tricks to increase his power

It seems Hun Sen will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power. He has reverted to some tried and tested methods. He used military shows of support to shore up his support, as he did in 2008 and 2017. He will allow military officials to stand as candidates. He will disregard the fact this is a conflict of interest.

He broke campaign laws by urging people to vote before the official campaign period begins on July 7. The National Election Committee (NEC) lacks independence; he is unlikely to face censure.

He is abusing the new lèse majesté law – as experts predicted he would

Cambodia’s lèse majesté law is very new. Hun Sen has already mirrored the approach Thailand’s junta has taken by abusing it to shore up power. He is using the law to silence the opposition rather than protect the dignity of the royal family.

In effect, the government interprets any activity deemed to be in opposition to the CPP as an insult to the king. When Cambodia passed the law, experts predicted the government would use it in this way. They were right.

Hun Sen’s continued dictatorship is inevitable

Hun Sen’s return to power is inevitable. He continues his clampdown on civil liberties, the media, and his political opponents. He has threatened civil war. His actions and words prove he has dictatorial ambitions. All the while, his subjects suffer. Cambodia becomes isolated as the US and EU deny them aid.

People do not speak out in public for fear of retribution. People no longer have anywhere to protest. The only voices of dissent come from abroad, making it easy for Hun Sen to discredit.

Hun Sen’s claim to be a supporter of democracy is nonsense. However, he knows that all rulers need to be able to legitimise their route to power. Therefore, even he must pay lip service to the democratic process.