With the general election less than one year away, Cambodia is set for a rocky twelve months, defined by intense politicking and political unrest. The election result will determine whether Cambodia continues to advance towards a two-party democracy or reinforces its stature as a single-party autocracy.
Cambodia’s next general election has been set for July 29, 2018. With political tensions growing over opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, this will be one of the closest elections in Cambodia’s history.
This article will ask what lies in the year ahead, and examine the implications of a win for either side. Although the government is unlikely to lose power, the election reflects an important crossroad concerning Cambodia’s path towards (or indeed away from) democracy.
The next 12 months
Having come close to defeat in 2013, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has since cracked down on the opposition, arresting key political figures and members of civil society. Nevertheless the main opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) made significant strides in this year’s local elections (gaining 44% of the popular vote). The CNRP believes it can win next year’s general election.
This confidence comes in spite of a slew of constitutional amendments introduced this year, aimed at shackling the opposition. The Law on Political Parties grants enhanced powers to the government and judiciary to suspend and dissolve any political party. The law was used to pressure exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy into severing his ties with the CNRP earlier this year. The CNRP may potentially be dissolved should it fail to cut ties with Sam Rainsy completely, which would leave the opposition hamstrung.
This coming year will witness more politicking between the government and opposition, as election campaigning reaches fever pitch. Government alarm at CNRP’s local gains will likely encourage them to employ harsher measures to suppress dissent. This could include stricter controls to reduce freedom of expression on social media, which will continue to grow in importance.
With more haranguing of the opposition, the CNRP is likely to wage further demonstrations – on issues such as rights abuses, the need for a democratic press, entrenched corruption, but also last year’s politically-motivated murder of government critic Kem Ley.
Such actions risk a forceful response, leading to clashes between protesters and police and security personnel. During opposition demonstrations in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh, after the 2013 election, one person was killed after police used tear gas and live bullets to disperse the protesters. Repeat incidents are possible, particularly if hardcore CNRP activists react negatively to the increasing government force which many anticipate.
On the policy front, the government will champion its record of economic growth, job creation and ‘political stability’ (i.e. from continued CPP rule since 1979). It may also try to steal some of the CNRP’s moderate and youth support by appropriating its rival’s policies. This happened in 2013, with the CPP raising minimum wages for garment workers and salaries for civil servants; introducing a health insurance scheme; and reducing fuel and electricity prices – all policies originating in the CNRP manifesto.
After the election
Hun Sen said his government will hold onto power ‘at any cost’, and the CPP has all the tools it needs to do this. Despite growing opposition momentum, Hun Sen retains absolute control over the judiciary, bureaucracy, security forces and mass media.
In the unlikely event that the CPP does lose, there is a strong risk of violence. Hun Sen rather grimly warned of a ‘civil war’ should his party lose. These words reflect his and his government’s deep insecurities, and should not be taken lightly given the rawness of memories of the Khmer Rouge regime. Kem Ley’s assassination proves that violent identity politics continue to maintain a hold over the country.
If not violence, then there is a risk of an Erdoğan-style purge of opposition figures, civil society figureheads, dissenting journalists, academics and other sympathisers – on a greater scale than Cambodia has seen before. This could lead to a deepening political crisis, as an absence of political opposition leaves the country vulnerable to growing political decay.
If the CPP wins, the immediate prospects are not much better. The CPP’s victories in the 2008 and 2013 general elections were marred by widespread voting irregularities and accusations of government meddling. In 2013, it was CPP’s particularly narrow win which led to disputes over the result and the subsequent violence in the streets. Whether before or after the election, government attempts to stamp out public dissent will prove fruitless, and only catalyse anti-government sentiment in the future.
Effects on investment
Arguably, decreasing democratic space and growing human rights abuses may encourage investors to reassess the reputational risks of doing business in Cambodia. Whilst difficult to predict, only significant political deterioration is likely to hurt business and investment. Political clampdowns have been a feature of Cambodian politics for decades. Meanwhile, the country’s investment profile has improved much under the CPP, aided by consistent public spending and tourism.
Cambodia is set for expected GDP growth of 7% this year and next, as it continues to evolve from an agricultural to a market economy (aided by vast reserves of onshore and offshore gas fields, which will help to diversify the economy and drive future growth). Currently, uncertainty around the election, and not a moral stance against the CPP’s actions, is the main factor affecting FDI.
Only if the CPP’s crackdown significantly escalates, could Cambodia’s risk profile change significantly. David Hutt notes Western investors are perceived as ‘more risk-averse than their Asian counterparts, which…are more used to the “ebb and flow” of Cambodia’s politics’. Cambodia may find solace in a closer relationship with China, which generally prioritises profit-making over concerns about human rights or political violence. We may thus witness Cambodia appropriate the ‘Chinese model’, defined by authoritarian governance, vastly restricted media freedom and neglect of individual rights.
Despite China’s growing political clout in Cambodia, the west has done well not to push Cambodia further into China’s arms. Hutt notes that western governments have been ‘mostly reticent’ on the matter of Hun Sen’s latest crackdown – likely because they recognise Cambodia’s potential as a tiger economy and want their share of the spoils.
Overall, the 2018 election will prove pivotal to defining Cambodia’s democratic trajectory. Although Hun Sen is likely to retain power, his government will be pushed to its limit, and may be forced into actions that harm its standing as one of Southeast Asia’s more dynamic economies.
Alexander Macleod is a doctoral researcher at Newcastle University with a focus on Southeast Asian politics and geography. Article as appears on Global Risk Insights: http://globalriskinsights.com/2017/08/cambodia-2018-election-implications/