Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) supporters wave CPP and Cambodian national flags during an election rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg)

With China's Help, Cambodia Strongman Set to Extend 33-Year Rule

(Bloomberg) -- As Cambodians voted on Sunday, a win is all but assured for strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen in an election that highlights China’s growing influence in Asia over the West.

Polls closed at 3 p.m. local time, but the election commission announced that preliminary results wouldn’t be known until Aug. 11. Results were known immediately after the 2013 election, which generated protests from the opposition.

After that narrow win over Sam Rainsy and his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen -- who’s been in power for 33 years -- has since disbanded the party, silenced his critics and forced the closure of most independent media.

With China's Help, Cambodia Strongman Set to Extend 33-Year Rule

In that time he’s grown ever closer to China, accepting cash from Beijing in return for supporting its geopolitical aims in the region – particularly regarding disputed territory in the South China Sea. When the U.S. and European Union pulled funding for the election, China stepped in with $20 million for equipment, including polling booths, laptops and computers.

As a staunch supporter of Hun Sen’s regime, Beijing has billions of dollars at stake. This month, U.S. security-research firm FireEye said it found evidence of a Chinese hacking team infiltrating computer systems belonging to Cambodia’s election commission, opposition leaders and the media.

Still, the U.S. and EU have some leverage left: Low tariffs for Cambodia’s garment industry, the largest employer in the country. The EU is now reviewing those benefits, citing the current political climate.

“Now, the biggest destination of export from Cambodia are the EU and U.S," said Hiroshi Suzuki, chief economist at the Business Research Institute for Cambodia. If the EU were to pull out of its trade incentive schemes "the effect to Cambodian economy, especially the garment sector, could be serious."

Cambodia has experienced a median growth rate of 7.6 percent over the past two decades, outpacing other Southeast Asian nations. China was by far the biggest investor in Cambodia, outlaying $12.6 billion in foreign investment since 1994, according to the Council for the Development of Cambodia. It’s also Cambodia’s biggest trade partner.

“Chinese support has allowed them to be much more open and confident in their spurning of human rights norms, so there is some enabling effect,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.’’

While that benefits Beijing while Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is in power, it also poses a risk if he ever leaves. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is now reconsidering tens of billions of dollars in Chinese projects after a surprise election win in May.

“There is a widespread popular disaffection with the CPP’s crackdown,’’ Strangio said. “The CPP government may not be seen as legitimate.”

International observers and institutions including the United Nations have questioned the state of democracy in Cambodia and declared the elections “not genuine.’’ Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called it “a farce and a mockery of democracy by a prime minister keen to ratify his seizure of absolute power with a rubber stamp election.”

With China's Help, Cambodia Strongman Set to Extend 33-Year Rule

Despite the lack of opposition, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have campaigned hard. On Friday, they entertained tens of thousands of supporters waving flags and chanting as they rode on trucks into Phnom Penh for the mass rally.

During his speech, Hun Sen branded the CNRP -- who secured 45 percent of the vote in the last election -- as traitors and defended its dissolution as a necessary for the country’s stability.

‘Iron Fist’

“If we didn’t eliminate them with an iron fist, maybe by now Cambodia would be in a situation of war,” he said.

The exiled CNRP leadership, meanwhile, has asked Cambodians to boycott the election. They stopped short of calling for mass protests as they did following the 2013 election, when demonstrations in the streets of the capital turned deadly.

“We do not want bloodshed. Hun Sen is ready to use the armed forces to kill. He has done it before,” said Mu Sochua, deputy leader of the CNRP. “Keep your finger clean,” she said referring to the indelible ink used as proof of voting. “Do not legitimize this sham election.”

Still, many Cambodians are willing to excuse Hun Sen’s attack on the opposition and fundamental rights while the economy continues to improve.

“I am a fan of Hun Sen and the CPP," said Tita, a 20-year-old university student in Phnom Penh. "I think he has developed my country and I don’t have to depend on him. I can now depend on me.”

Even as an avid Hun Sen supporter, she said she’d rather the CNRP was allowed to participate. “I am sad about it. I think it is not a totally happy election, but that’s okay.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.