Playacting Democracy in Cambodia

For the last half-decade, Cambodia has held elections without competition.

In 2017, the country’s supreme court—under the direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—outlawed the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CPP won every National Assembly and Senate seat in the 2018 general elections that followed. And in last summer’s commune elections, the CPP took about 73 percent of the popular vote, besting a new opposition party, the Candlelight Party (CP), to claim just about all 1,652 races for commune chief and 80 percent of those for commune councillor. The government harassed and intimidated CP officials and voters. The turnout, around 77 percent, was the lowest in several election cycles. “Voters were not really excited with the election,” one former CNRP lawmaker said. “They seemed to come unhappily.”

The upcoming general elections, set to take place on July 23, will largely replay last year’s events—albeit with some minor quirks.

The CPP will emerge victorious. The government has again intimidated CP officials, and last month banned the party from participating in the elections because CP officials allegedly submitted a photocopied document to register rather than an original copy. There is no real opposition left; the election results are not in doubt. “Democracy is dead in Cambodia,” CP chief Teav Vannol said after the party’s banning. “That’s how I feel.”

These contests’ undemocratic nature will prompt criticism from Washington and Brussels. Already, the Washington Post has described the elections as “rigged” and suggested that the Biden administration—which has largely maintained previous administrations’ muddled Cambodia policy—“forcefully call out” Hun Sen and boost civil society assistance. The White House and State Department have already criticized the CP’s banning and will probably continue calling out Hun Sen as such, seeing the flawed contests as another reason to avoid seriously engaging Phnom Penh. Congressional lawmakers may consider the election further evidence of why Washington should not renew Cambodia’s access to the Generalized System of Preferences, which before expiring in 2020 had enabled the duty-free export of many Cambodian goods to the United States.

The UN secretary-general has criticized the election climate as well. So too has the European Union, which may see the election as more reason to further restrict Cambodia’s access to the Everything But Arms (EBA) export scheme that gives the majority of a country’s goods duty-free access to the European market.

This is all predictable; it is essentially a repetition of the last six years.

The Trump administration criticized the 2017 banning of the CNRP and the unfair 2018 elections; the Biden administration called out Cambodia’s moves against opposition activists last year. European policymakers did much the same, and partially withdrew Cambodia’s EBA access for human rights-related reasons in 2020.

More curious is the way in which Hun Sen continues to balance two contradictory priorities: (1) going through the motions of democracy while (2) refusing to allow even modest electoral competition.

The first priority reflects Hun Sen’s belief that holding elections, even Potemkin ones, will win the CPP some support from rural Cambodians who may not necessarily understand what real democracy is supposed to look like. That is why he allowed the CP to win a meager amount of positions in 2022, and will likely let some “firefly” opposition parties win at least some votes this time around as well. The remnants of the royalist opposition party, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), whose leaders now seem to have cordial ties with Hun Sen, might be able to claim some seats. But they will not challenge the CPP’s hold on power.

This is because for Hun Sen, winning 100 percent of the available seats would be counterproductive. Such an outcome, as in 2018, allows international observers to brand Cambodia a “one-party state”—risking more sanctions and trade restrictions, much to Phnom Penh’s chagrin.

This is also why Hun Sen has pushed legal changes to bar election boycotters from standing as candidates in the future. He understands that to brandish any democratic credentials, he needs high turnout—even for a one-man race, and even from those who might want to run against the ruling party in the future. A continued decline in turnout would expose Cambodia as the one-party, politically stagnant country it is.

“How could those people take control of a commune, district, and province, or become members of the Senate or of the National Assembly, [if] they didn’t exercise the right to vote, which is a fundamental right, [or if they] even stopped other people from participating in the election?” Hun Sen asked in a June 13 speech. He then encouraged citizens to vote, as is their right as “good citizens of a democratic state.”

Such machinations and rhetoric are designed to boost turnout, avoid negative headlines (like in 2018), and augment the Hun family’s democratic credentials at home. Indeed, convincing Cambodians, most of whom remain subsistence farmers rather than educated elites, that he has some democratic legitimacy will be all the more important as Hun Sen looks to hand the premiership to his son Hun Manet in the coming years (despite planning to rule from behind the scenes).

But if the first priority reflects pragmatism, the second reflects paranoia.

In recent months, Hun Sen moved to prevent the CP and even some smaller parties from participating in elections, threatened to arrest CP leaders if they protest, required voters to be “good citizens” to vote, and even pushed Malaysia to cancel the public events of and expel exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. These heavy-handed moves suggest that he remains scarred by 2013 and 2017, when the CNRP nearly bested his party in elections that the CPP tilted in its own favor. He is now unwilling to allow even a limited amount of contestation, fearing a repeat of those years—or worse.

But he sees value in playacting democracy. He does not, as the antiauthoritarian Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman wrote, “openly spit on the corpse of freedom” and reject democracy. Instead, he turns the concept of democracy “into a stuffed dummy, into a shell of words” to legitimize his undemocratic rule. He has created a mock parliament, mock elections, and a mock political life.

With all of this, he has turned “democracy” into an adornment of his regime—perhaps a useless one to those abroad who know better, but an important one at home for those who have never lived under a democratic government. “And dead freedom,” Grossman wrote, “became the lead actor in a piece of theater on a gigantic scale.”

Yet in this mockery of freedom there is a recognition of democracy’s power. Cambodians do not have democracy; they have a leader who uses its imagery and invokes its name precisely because he fears its ability to oust him. The strongman’s fear of his people’s potential, evinced most obviously by the upcoming elections’ unfairness, paradoxically bears witness to the strength of freedom.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program