Phnom Penh, Cambodia – With Cambodia heading to the polls on Sunday in what rights groups have said is one of the most oppressive elections since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, here are five things you need to know:
Why is this election important?
Following a near upset in the 2013 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 33 years and is one of the longest-serving rulers in the world.
Over the last two years, he has disbanded the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and jailed its members, silenced critics and forced the closure of most independent media.
Since UN-supervised elections in 1993, observers and international bodies including the United Nations believe Hun Sen has moved the country towards authoritarian rule, declaring these elections as a sham.
After the recent political crackdown by Hun Sen, democracy is definitely dead in Cambodia. Even its facade has crumbled.
“For decades, Cambodians have been robbed of their land, robbed of their country’s natural wealth, and robbed of their voice. Now they are being robbed of their vote,” said Emma Burnett, a campaigner for London-based rights group Global Witness.
“This is a betrayal not just of Cambodians, but of all of the countries that have together contributed billions of aid dollars to helping Cambodians build a democratic system from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide – one that respects the rule of law and basic human rights.”
There may be 20 parties on the ballot this year, but none can compete with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which is expected to dominate the polls.
The prime minister has stacked election monitoring positions with close allies.
Of the 107 domestic groups registered by the National Election Committee to monitor the vote, nearly half are reportedly subjugated by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, a group headed by Hun Sen’s own son and ruling party legislator Hun Many.
Observers have also noted allegations of voter intimidation.
“Equally worrying were reports that local authorities have threatened to withhold public services to those who do not vote for the ruling party. This only creates a climate of fear and confusion,” Rhona Smith, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, said in a statement posted on Facebook.
“[I] encourage the government to condemn in very clear terms voter intimidation and to clarify that calling for a boycott in a non-compulsory vote is permitted.”
Has there been any resistance?
With the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) disbanded in Cambodia and its leader Kem Sokha in prison over treason allegations, its top members abroad are calling on their followers to boycott the elections.
“After the recent political crackdown by Hun Sen, democracy is definitely dead in Cambodia. Even its facade has crumbled,” said Sam Rainsy, the former CNRP leader who ran in the contested 2013 elections.
“We call our supporters to boycott this sham election. In the present circumstances, an election without the CNRP as the only credible opposition party is meaningless.”
The remaining opposition parties have yet to call for popular protests and wish to avoid the same violence that took place following the last elections, after the CNRP accused Hun Sen of election fraud.
Does Cambodia enjoy good relations with China and the US?
Anti-Western sentiment has grown in advance of the elections. US soft power in the region had helped facilitate international aid following the country’s destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. However, as US influence has weakened, China has stepped in to provide billions of dollars in loans and new infrastructure projects.
By the end of 2017, China was by far the biggest investor in Cambodia, having sunk $12.6bn in foreign direct investment, according to Chinese state media.
China has also provided a total of $5.27bn in financial aid to Cambodia from July 2001 to June 2018, while also becoming its biggest trade partner reaching $5.8bn in 2017, up 22 percent from a year earlier.
As those figures went up, Hun Sen, considered increasingly autocratic by the West, earned the scorn of the international community.
Last August, Hun Sen expelled the US-funded National Democratic Institute amid accusations it was colluding with the opposition CNRP.
Radio Free Asia has closed its Phnom Penh office, The Cambodia Daily was shuttered and CNRP leader Kem Sokha was jailed on allegedly flimsy charges of treason and collusion with the United States.
Nevertheless, Beijing has remained committed to Hun Sen.
“Asia is increasingly a region dominated by China and contested by other key regional players like India and Japan,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Programme in Washington, DC. “As for the US, don’t expect it to play much of a role at all.”
What will happen after the election?
Hun Sen and the CPP are primed to win in a landslide. Observers believe the ruler’s autocratic ways might threaten a new government that neither the international community nor his opponents believe to be legitimate.
“There is widespread popular disaffection with the CPP’s crackdown,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia. “Cambodia’s social problems will continue to simmer on into the new political era, posing the CPP with potentially grave problems in the years to come.”
But with the economy humming along and little recourse for political opponents on the ground, Hun Sen’s rule is likely to remain uncontested for the foreseeable future.
“The CPP government may not be seen as legitimate, but the absence of opposition leaders from Cambodia make it unlikely that there will be any broad-based protest against it,” Strangio said.