Cambodia goes to the polls in both 2017 and 2018, with local elections next year and national elections the year after. At a time when the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s election victory have underlined the dangers of prediction, it would be a bold forecaster who would be prepared to offer a firm opinion on the likely results of these elections. And I am not that courageous. Rather, it seems worthwhile to ask another question: if the votes, and particularly the national vote, go against the long-dominant Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen, would he and his party accept the verdict?
This question has to be placed against what is a confusing background. There is no shortage of critical comments on Hun Sen’s Cambodia including, in particular, articles that concentrate on the recent execution-style killing of social commentator Kem Ley in July, as James Gerrand did in a recent blog post, which includes a reference to an important article on the same subject in Mekong Review by Hun Sen’s biographer, Sebastian Strangio
Not that such commentary is new. When I published Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History in 2008, I observed that in Cambodia ‘normality...includes a government that brooks no challenge, in a system of government that includes corruption at the highest level of government’, an observation that partly reflected memories of the bloody events of 1997, when Hun Sen’s successful putsch against political rival and leader of FUNCINPEC, Prince Ranariddh, was followed by torture and killing of at least one hundred of the CPP’s opponents.
In short, on past and present evidence, including the recent and clearly extra-legal action to prevent the leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia, Hun Sen and his party are ready to take all actions that they see as necessary to stay in office. Whether their actions accord with western concepts of the rule of law is not a consideration.
But how does this relate to the CPP’s and the CNRP’s election prospects? One school of thought concentrates on the 2013 national election results in which the CPP polled far less well than many expected, ending with 68 seats to the CNRP's 55 and a workable but much-reduced majority of 13 in the National Assembly of 123 seats. The CNRP’s repeated claims of electoral fraud have received much attention but have not been supported by convincing evidence. What is more important is the issue of whether the 2013 results reflected a fundamental shift in voting patterns, with the widely accepted suggestion that the increased CNRP vote came from younger, tech savvy voters in a country in which roughly 60% of the population is under 30 years of age and 30% is aged between 15 and 30.
What would drive a national vote against the CPP? It might not be the economy, which while clearly unequal in its benefits, is currently in a better state than many realise, and the Asian Development Bank is among those enthusiastically touting Cambodia’s prospects.
Visual evidence of apparent urban prosperity is abundant in Phnom Penh where an increasing number of high-rise buildings are dominating the built environment, including, unfortunately, a 45-storey building looming directly over the Australian Embassy Chancery. Who will occupy the multiple apartment buildings under construction and whether or not the gains cited by the ADB are real rather than ephemeral are valid questions. And worker dissatisfaction in Cambodia vital garment factories is a permanent rather than a passing issue. Moreover, some observers in Phnom Penh have recently described to me a sense of tiredness with the current government, present even among its previous supporters.
So the vote could go against the incumbent government even if economic conditions remain relatively benign and if younger voters conclude that their interests are not being met by a party that has been in power too long. What then? Well, in 1993 Hun Sen showed that he was ready to ignore the national vote that went in favour of the rival party, FUNCINPEC. He did so because the CPP controlled the levers of power in all the ministries that mattered and in the forces of order. The same situation exists today, but in spades. As the Global Witness report 'Hostile Takeover', that was released in July, shows, Hun Sen and his family are deeply entrenched in controlling positions within Cambodia’s military, commercial and media establishment, not to mention its political class.
To cite only the most obvious examples of the dominant role exercised by the prime minister’s family, Hun Sen’s eldest son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, is deputy commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit (a battalion-sized and heavily armed body), deputy chairman of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and commander of the Special Forces Unit. Hun Manith, Hun Sen’s middle son, is a brigadier general and director of the Ministry of Defence’s Intelligence unit. The eldest of Hun Sen’s female children, Hun Mana has full control of three TV channels. And this listing does not touch on the intermarriage of members of Hun Sen’s family with other important CPP political figures.
As long ago as 2007, the Global Witness report, ‘Family Trees' exposed in detail the interconnection between business and politics, and the Hun Sen family and nothing has emerged to change the information the report provided (as an aside, Global Witness was banned from Cambodia following the release of this report).
So, with Cambodia’s leading political family firmly established in the essential structures of the state, along with allies who have also benefitted from the family's position, is it reasonable to think that they would simply accept an adverse electoral decision? Perhaps they will not have to face such a challenge. Despite the admiration some western observers have for the exiled Sam Rainsy, and the undoubted unfairness of the manner in which the CNRP is treated by the current government, it is not inconceivable that the CPP could win the 2018 national elections, defying the critical views of external observers and despite the social and economic inequities that remain such a part of Cambodia life. Should this not come to pass, a re-run of 1993 is not out of the question. At that time, and in a blunt rejection of the result that was a convincing win for FUNCINPEC, Hun Sen and the CPP simply refused to give up power. Faced with this intransigence, the United Nations, which had supervised the elections, gave up involvement in post-electoral events. An uneasy compromise was cobbled together that involved supposedly joint sharing of power by two co-prime ministers and shared ministerial appointments. Without question, however, real power remained with the CPP that dominated the military and police.
Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images