Cambodia Strongman Extends 33-Year Rule in Boycotted Election

(Bloomberg) -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen extended his more-than-three-decade run in power, easily winning a boycotted election on Sunday after he disbanded the main opposition party last year.

Khieu Kanharith, the government’s top spokesman, told the Associated Press that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won at least 70 percent of the vote. The results were never in doubt after Hun Sen moved to quash political dissent following a narrow election win in 2013, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nearly won the popular vote.

The U.S. described the election as "neither free nor fair" and warned it was considering "a significant expansion" of visa restrictions on government members announced in December.

"The flawed elections, which excluded the country’s principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Hun Sen’s consolidation of power is a boon for China, which has seen Cambodia become a reliable voice of support for its geopolitical aims in the region -- particularly regarding disputed territory in the South China Sea. China was by far the biggest investor in Cambodia, with $12.6 billion in foreign investment since 1994, and is also the country’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.’’

China stepped in with $20 million for election equipment -- including polling booths, laptops and computers -- after the U.S. and European Union pulled funding for the vote. Former opposition members called for a boycott, and human-rights groups denounced the election as a sham.

Cambodia Strongman Extends 33-Year Rule in Boycotted Election

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. The preferential tariffs have helped Cambodia achieve a median growth rate of 7.6 percent over the past two decades, outpacing other Southeast Asian nations.

“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."

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.

While Beijing benefits as long as Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is in power, it also faces 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.”

Cambodia Strongman Extends 33-Year Rule in Boycotted Election

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 -- which won 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.