Cambodia’s election a blatant farce
In the absence of competition, parliamentary elections were held in Cambodia on 23 July with the same prime minister, Hun Sen, at the helm since 1985. With the only credible opposition party banned, the ruling party claimed over 80 per cent of the vote and almost all parliamentary seats. One of these was taken by Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, who was quickly announced as the next prime minister. The electoral farce, held amid a years-long crackdown on dissent, has served its purpose of engineering dynastic succession. International civil society must refuse to allow the regime any veneer of democratic legitimacy and instead support embattled Cambodian activists.
The title shouldn’t fool you: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats. A political survivor, this former military commander had been bolted to his chair since 1985, presiding over what he has turned into a de facto one-party system – and now apparently a dynastic regime.
On 23 July, running virtually unopposed, Hun Sen improved on his 2018 feat, when his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed 77 per cent of the vote and all 125 National Assembly seats. Now it received 82 per cent, and it will likely collect around 120 seats, with the remaining five going to FUNCINPEC, an inoffensive royalist party. Sixteen other parties ran, but the only one that could have offered a challenge, the Candlelight Party, had been banned on a technicality in May.
Following the proclamation of his ‘landslide victory‘, Hun Sen finally announced his retirement, handing over his position to his eldest son, Hun Manet. An economist and West Point-trained general, Manet had already been endorsed by the CPP. Winning a parliamentary seat, which he just did, was all he had to do to become eligible. And just to ensure dynastic succession faced no obstacle, a constitutional amendment was passed in August 2022 to allow the ruling party to appoint the prime minister without parliamentary approval.
Hun Sen isn’t going away: he’ll remain the CPP chair and a member of parliament, and will be appointed to other positions such as President of the Supreme Privy Council to the King and President of the Senate. He’ll also remain at the helm of his family’s extensive business empire.
A slippery slope towards autocracy
Hun Sen came to power in a world that no longer exists. He managed to cling onto power as everything around him changed.
After gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia went through civil war, followed by a bloody experiment of collectivisation under the Khmer Rouge regime, which left at least 1.5 million people – around 20 per cent of the population – dead. Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge as a soldier in the early 1970s and fought in the Cambodian Civil War. He then defected to Vietnam and fought on its side in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, which earned him several government positions under the Vietnamese government of occupation in the 1980s.
He was first appointed prime minister in 1985, a position that he kept when United Nations-led negotiations led to the establishment of a transitional authority in 1991. In 1993 Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. When that year’s election, in which FUNCINPEC came first, resulted in a hung parliament, Hun Sen refused to concede defeat, and negotiations resulted in a coalition government in which he and the FUNCINPEC party leader served as joint prime ministers. When the coalition broke down in 1997, Hun Sen orchestrated a coup that brought him back to the top – this time, alone. At the head of the CPP, he has won every election since.
But he didn’t go unchallenged, and in 2013 his power was threatened. A new opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), had formed in 2012 from the merger of two parties, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party. In 2013, on a record-low turnout, the CPP got its lowest share of votes and seats since 1998. On the official tally, the CNRP had come dangerously close to beating Hun Sen.
The defeated opposition and international observers denounced fraud, but Hun Sen worked hard to make sure no one would get close to challenging him again. In the run-up to the 2018 election, Cambodia plunged head-first into authoritarianism. Repression increased as power was concentrated in the hands of Hun Sen and his closest circle – including his son and heir, who occupied increasingly key positions, deputy commander-in-chief among them.
To achieve total political control, Hun Sen has consistently sought to eliminate dissent at source, by clamping down on civil society.
In 2015, the CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy was summarily ousted from the National Assembly and stripped of parliamentary immunity. A warrant was issued for his arrest, pushing him into exile. He was then barred from returning to Cambodia, and in 2017 he was convicted for ‘defaming’ Hun Sen and ordered to pay a million dollars in damages. He resigned as the CNRP’s president. His successor, Kem Sokha, soon faced persecution too.
In November 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the CNRP and its parliamentary seats were handed over to other parties. The court ruling also ordered a five-year political ban for 118 opposition members.
The only parties that eventually ran on a supposedly opposition platform in 2018 were small parties manufactured by government allies to give the impression of competition. In the run-up to the election, the CPP-dominated National Election Committee (NEC) threatened to prosecute anybody who urged an election boycott and warned voters that criticising the CPP wasn’t allowed.
Lack of real competition, plus the use of intimidatory tactics throughout the campaign and on election day, handed the CPP its best result so far and produced a parliament without a single dissenting voice.
There was no let off after the election, with mass arrests of former CNRP members and civil society activists becoming commonplace. Around 150 people were put on a mass trial on charges of incitement, treason and conspiracy, mostly for sharing messages on social media platforms supporting Rainsy’s attempt to return to Cambodia. In March 2022, 19 CNRP members were given prison sentences of between 5 and 10 years. Then in October, Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, and in March 2023 his successor, Sokha, was sentenced to 27 years for ‘treason’ and banned from running for office. At least 39 opposition politicians are behind bars. Many others have left the country.
But as the CNRP faded, the torch passed to the SRP, reborn as the Candlelight Party. In local elections held in June 2022, Candlelight proved that Hun Sen was right to be afraid: in an extremely repressive context, it still managed to take more than 20 per cent of the vote. And sure enough, in May 2023 the NEC disqualified Candlelight from standing in the July election, on allegations that it had failed to submit required documentation.
Civic space under assault
To achieve total political control, Hun Sen has consistently sought to eliminate dissent at source, by clamping down on civil society. Political repression has therefore been accompanied by tightening civic space restrictions aimed at squeezing the life out of independent organisations, activists and journalists.
A crackdown on independent media has been underway since 2017. That year, the Cambodia Daily was forced to close due to a disputed tax bill and Radio Free Asia stopped operating in reaction to intimidation that made its work impossible. Also in 2017, 32 independent radio frequencies in 20 provinces were forced to shut down. The Phnom Penh Post was sold in 2018 to a Malaysian investor with links to Hun Sen, with many of its editors and reporters quitting or getting fired.
In the run-up to the latest election farce, in March 2022, the government stripped three digital media outlets – the Bayong Times, Cambodia Today and Khmer Cover TV – of their licences over alleged violations of journalistic ethics after they published stories on government corruption. And in February 2023, Hun Sen ordered the closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the few remaining independent media outlets, after it published a story about Manet. Severe restrictions weigh on foreign media groups, some of which have been forced out of the country. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia currently ranks 147 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
In contrast, government-owned and pro-government media organisations are able to operate. The four main media groups are run by magnates close to the ruling family. Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, runs a media conglomerate that includes radio stations, newspapers, TV channels and online sites. As a result, most information available to Cambodians comes through the filter of power. Most media basically do as Hun Sen says, which includes disseminating state-issued disinformation and discrediting independent voices as agents of propaganda.
There’s barely anyone left willing and able to carry out watchdog roles, and a simple Facebook post against the regime can result in immediate detention.
The right to protest is also heavily restricted. Gatherings by banned opposition parties are prohibited and demonstrations by political groups, labour unions, social movements and essentially anyone mobilising on issues the government doesn’t want raised are routinely dispersed by security forces, often violently. Protesters are subjected to threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detention.
In 2020, the pandemic provided the perfect excuse to further restrict protests: the Law on Preventive Measures against the Spread of COVID-19 gave the authorities the power to impose lengthy jail sentences and steep fines on those violating protocols. Restrictions weren’t lifted after the virus receded. Over the past couple of years, activism has been increasingly criminalised. in one example, in October 2021 10 activists were sentenced to 20 months in jail for calling for the release of trade unionist Rong Chhun. In another, land activists Oum Sophy and Snuon Nhoeun were detained simply for livestreaming a land-related protest.
To ensure that nothing would go wrong on election day, weeks before the election Hun Sen started wielding the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, which requires civil society organisations to submit documentation on their donors and finances, seeking to bully them into submission. He repeatedly warned them that they risked being shut down if they failed to submit their financial statements.
As if leaving people with no choice wasn’t enough, Hun Sen also mounted a scare campaign to force them to vote, given that a low turnout would undermine the credibility of the outcome. People were threatened with repercussions, legal or otherwise, if they undertook any action that could be interpreted as an attempt to boycott the election or spoil ballot papers. The election law was hastily amended to make this a crime.
Prior to the election, four Candlelight representatives were arrested for spoiling ballots, encouraging people to destroy ballots and ‘disturbing the peace’. On similar grounds, the government fined 17 opposition activists and politicians and barred them from holding elected office for 20 years. Following the election, a former CNRP official was arrested after being identified as one of 44 people linked to a Telegram group where spoiling ballots had allegedly been discussed. The authorities publicly disclosed the identities and phone numbers of those involved.
Experience gives not much ground for hope that repression will let up rather than intensify following the election. There’s also little reason to expect that Manet, long groomed for succession, will take a different path from his still-powerful predecessor. The very least the international community should do to stand by Cambodia’s criminalised democracy activists and embattled civil society is to call out the charade of an election for what it was and refuse to buy the Cambodian regime’s whitewashing attempt.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community must raise concerns about closing civic and political space in Cambodia, making sure not to play into the hands of the regime’s attempts to claim legitimacy.
Cambodia’s key trading partners should denounce repression and refuse to conduct business with companies affiliated with the governing party and ruling family.
International civil society and civil society in host countries should provide support to Cambodian democracy activists in exile.
Cover photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images