Spotlight - Cambodia: July 26, 2023

The results of Cambodia’s July 23 elections were never in doubt. Hun Sen, who leads the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and has been in power since 1985, made sure of it.

His government removed any real political opposition by banning the Candlelight Party (CP) from contesting the elections and sentencing the leader of the previously-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to 27 years of house arrest on trumped-up charges. Some meager “firefly” parties that pop up around election time but pose no threat to the government were allowed to participate for show; Hun Sen knows that winning 100 percent of the seats, as in 2018, would be a public relations misstep.

Also in the name of public relations, Hun Sen pushed legal changes to bar election boycotters from standing as candidates in the future and threatened reprisals for those who spoiled their ballots. He wanted—and secured—high turnout, of around 84 percent, for an uncontested election designed to brandish his government’s purported “democratic” credentials. To hammer that point home, he welcomed some 400 dignitaries to observe the elections, including a former Nigerian president, the speaker of the National Assembly of Malaysia, the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau, the chairman of the Thai Election Commission, and the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This was a highly choreographed attempt to play-act democracy—to win the legitimacy afforded to democratic leaders without allowing for proper or even partial contestation, as in Cambodia’s 2013 and 2017 elections where the CNRP nearly bested his party in elections that the CPP tilted in its own favor.

In the end, Hun Sen got what he wanted.

The CPP claims to have won the elections “in a landslide,” securing 120 of the available 125 parliamentary seats. The remnants of the royalist opposition party, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), appear to have won the other five. Official results show that the CPP won 77.9 percent of the total vote; FUNCINPEC claimed 8.7 percent. Despite promised retaliation for vote-spoiling, 5.7 percent of voters submitted invalid ballots—more than voted for any party besides the CPP and FUNCINPEC.

The international response was predictable. As is tradition when Cambodia holds an unfair election, the United States issued harsh criticism, imposed some limited sanctions, and paused some foreign assistance programs. Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and other Western governments all issued similar criticism.

Japan expressed concern ahead of the election but does not appear to have commented since. Neither has South Korea.

This divide between the West and like-minded Asian partners is not new. Whereas the West prefers to criticize Cambodia’s drift from the quasi-democracy of the early 1990s, Japan and South Korea—despite being democracies—prefer to work with the Cambodian government to achieve shared goals, such as boosting economic ties.

That is why former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, current prime minister Fumio Kishida, and current foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi have all hosted Hun Sen’s eldest son and successor, Hun Manet, in Tokyo. Hun Manet, a four-star general, has made several visits to South Korea in recent years as well. Over the last year, he has also met the commanders of the Australian and New Zealand armies.

Hun Manet stood as a candidate for Phnom Penh in the July elections, in which he won a parliamentary seat. He will likely resign his military position to take that seat, setting the stage for his elevation to prime minister.

Indeed, Hun Sen has floated Hun Manet as his successor for years and announced today that his son will take over the premiership in three weeks—despite internal CPP tensions and Hun Sen’s own admitted plans to rule from behind the scenes as CPP president. The CPP is also planning to elevate a younger generation of leaders to the cabinet, replacing many ministers with their children.

Should Hun Manet overcome the difficulties of patrimonial succession, he could govern in a more predictable manner—which both foreign governments and investors would appreciate. He is, after all, Western-educated; and Cambodia appears interested in somewhat diversifying its economic and political ties beyond China.

But the image of the reformer is often a mirage. History is replete with children of strongmen who are educated in the West and who Western interlocutors describe as moderates, only for them to take power and repeat, if not surpass, the ills of their father.

In Cambodia, as long as Hun Sen remains alive and well, the father will truly remain in power, even if Hun Manet is technically the prime minister. Until Hun Sen exits the scene, the well-trodden cycle—of crackdowns in Cambodia, followed by Western criticism—will likely continue unabated.

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