Cambodia completes its slide from democracy to dictatorship

Election on Sunday will see prime minister Hun Sen extend his 33-year run in office

Ahead of Cambodia's election on Sunday, Hun Sen has been touring the kingdom with a smile on his face and the air of a victor.

There is little doubt about the outcome of the polls. The longstanding prime minister’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is all but assured of a win and Hun Sen of another term to extend his 33-year run in office – one of the longest of any world leader.

The CPP faces only a nominal challenge from 19 small, mostly obscure parties after the regime last year disbanded the Cambodian National Rescue party (CNRP), the country's main opposition.

The EU and US have denounced the vote as a farce and will not be sending observers. Three of the groups approved to monitor the vote have close ties to the prime minister – and one is headed by Hun Many, his son.

The election will mark – symbolically at least – the death of the country’s flawed democratic exercise. This began when a UN force was deployed in the country in 1991, bringing an end to the country’s dark years of war and genocide and paving the way for democratic elections in 1993.

Now foreign donors are reflecting on the merits of pouring resources into the UN force, as well as subsequent economic aid and nation-building projects, now that there is little to show for such largesse in a country riddled by corruption and controlled by one man and his party.

"The international community has spent billions of dollars for Cambodia to help the country build its democracy, but now democracy is in the hands of Hun Sen," said Mao Monyvann, a former opposition MP with the banned CNRP.

The CNRP has called for a boycott of the vote, urging its members to show “clean fingers” unstained by polling-station ink. Opposition activists in the field, however, say voters have been threatened with prosecution, or with having documents such as birth certificates withheld if they do not vote.

Hun Sen has been lucky in his timing, long-time observers of the Cambodian leader say, both at the start of the country’s democratic experiment and now.

The 1991 peace agreement coincided with the end of the cold war and optimism that the world would embrace free-market economics and multi-party democracy.

Levers of power

Non-governmental organisations charged with promoting democracy put down roots in Cambodia, as did two foreign-owned newspapers that covered the country's affairs vigorously: the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post.

“Cambodia was always seen as a project,” said Ou Virak, founder and president of Future Forum, a think-tank in Phnom Penh. “A success story was written a long time ago, and in no way did [donors] want to accept a different narrative. That’s why they kept on trying to throw good money after bad.”

A former Khmer Rouge commander who fled into exile, Hun Sen returned after Vietnamese forces toppled the dictator Pol Pot in 1979. He took power as the country's acting leader in 1985. From the beginning, he profited from his access to the levers of state power and his incumbent status, at times using violence to get his way.

The CPP lost Cambodia's first postwar election in 1993 to royalists, forcing it into a power-sharing arrangement with Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Four years later, forces loyal to Hun Sen unseated Ranariddh in a coup and the prime minister has ruled Cambodia since.

Cambodia’s postwar reconstruction and economic recoveryhave helped buoy the prime minister. GDP growth has averaged 6-7 per cent in the past decade, and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty during his time in office.

Even as the west soured on the Hun Sen regime in recent years, China proved willing to prop up the economy with loans.

When the CNRP gained support in the 2013 national election, then in local elections last year, the government moved to quash the opposition, independent media and NGOs. Cambodian tax authorities – trained with the help of US aid (which has since been cut off) presented the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post with large tax bills, forcing the former to close and the latter’s owners to sell the paper to a new owner with ties to the regime.

"The western perceptions of Cambodia were always vastly over-optimistic," said Sebastian Strangio, journalist and author of a book on Hun Sen. "You can really see the west and Cambodia on a collision course – and the more that happens, the closer he will get to China, for good and for ill." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018