Official results released on late Wednesday reveal that the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has won all 125 seats in the country’s National Assembly after the July 29 general election.
The National Election Committee (NEC) stated that the CPP won 4,889,113 of 6,362,241 valid votes, or roughly 77% of the popular vote. It is a much higher percentage than the party, in power since 1979, has ever won at any other election.
Parliament is expected to reconvene on September 5, while the government will be installed the following day. However, as Prime Minister Hun Sen has himself noted, the transition can take place earlier if he wishes.
The CPP already controls 58 of the Senate’s seats (the other four are held by independents) after elections for the upper house in February. By one estimate, the CPP also controls about 95% of all official positions at the local level. In short, Cambodia is now a one-party state.
That isn’t the way the CPP sees it, however. “The victory has been a great historic achievement for our nation in determining steps forwards on the path of peace and development, while reflecting clearly that liberal pluralism in Cambodia has been safeguarded,” the party said in an August 15 statement.
Democratic nations see the result much differently. The United States, Japan and Australia, as well as the European Union, called the general election “illegitimate” after the only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by court order last November and was barred from participating at the polls.
The government accused the CRNRP of trying to overthrow the CPP government with US backing, without providing corroborating evidence. Its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September on treason charges and remains in pre-trial detention.
“The CPP is leading the nation to a one-party state with one man making all decisions for the entire nation through a sham election rejected by democratically elected governments,” CNRP vice president Mu Sochua told Reuters on Wednesday. “Sham elections cannot produce a legitimate National Assembly.”
Sam Rainsy, a CNRP co-founder who served as its president until he was forced under state legal pressure to resign in early 2017, claimed on Wednesday that the NEC had inflated the total number of votes by as many as two million.
Providing uncorroborated figures on his Facebook page, he alleged that the CPP only received 29% of the vote, a percentage calculated by including those who didn’t register, didn’t vote or who spoilt their ballot, along with the alleged two million “stolen” votes.
The CPP has played up the high turnout figure of 83%, which is significantly more than at the last general election in 2013. Yet roughly 1.4 million registered voters didn’t show up on election day, some no doubt motivated by the CNRP’s call for a nationwide boycott of the poll.
There were 1.3 million fewer registered voters compared to the last general election, which the CNRP came close to winning.
Moreover, almost 600,000 (or 9.4%) of all ballots cast were invalid, roughly six times higher than the average number of spoilt ballot at previous general elections. Considerably more spoilt ballots were cast than votes for the second-placed party, which analysts say represented a massive protest vote.
Well-established poll-observing groups, as well as the US, EU and Japan, all declined to send monitors to the election. Instead, observers were provided by less-than-democratic Russia, China and Myanmar. The highest percentage of monitors provided by an organization run by Hun Sen’s son.
The results indicate an overwhelming failure of the 19 smaller parties that decided to participate in the ballot. Some have reportedly filed complaints against how the election was held.
Funcinpec, once a main opponent of the CPP but now seen as its ally, took second place with 370,000 votes, or 5.4%. The League for Democracy Party came in fourth with just 4.4% of the vote.
Despite those lackluster showings, Hun Sen said on Wednesday that members of other political parties will be invited to serve as Secretary of States or advisory positions. However, he added: “they will not be members of the government that require vote of confidence from the parliament.”
The long-serving leader also proposed an informal forum at which other parties can share their political ideas.
The Grassroots Democratic Party, which some journalists wrongly described as the only independent party of the 19 smaller ones who contested the polls, seemingly rushed to accept the offer of an informal forum with the CPP.
“We would like to request that the dialogue will be based on value of integrity, national solidarity, and unity in our multi-party liberal democratic society,” said the party’s co-president Yang Saing Koma on Wednesday, according to CPP-mouthpiece Fresh News.
As patronage positions are now divvied up, the international community must now decide how to respond.
“If the world does not act now, then Hun Sen is set to become the next [ex-Zimbabwe dictator] Robert Mugabe, terrorizing Cambodians for the rest of his life,” Australian parliamentarian Julian Hill was recently quoted in local media.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said her government will be “talking with other like-minded nations about what would be an effective response.”
Now that the official results have been announced and the CPP has formally cemented its one-party state, foreign governments may think it’s an opportune time to decide on their responses, some analysts suggest.
Washington has already imposed targeted visa sanctions on certain Cambodian officials, while the commander of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, Hin Bun Hieng, was handed stiff financial sanctions, including freezes of his assets in the US and a ban on American companies from doing business with him.
On Wednesday, the US State Department announced it will expand visa restrictions on some Cambodian officials, which were first imposed in December.
“The expanded entry restrictions may apply to individuals both within and outside the Cambodian government who are responsible for the most notable anti-democratic actions taken in the run-up to the flawed July 29 election,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press conference in Washington.
More financial sanctions could soon be imposed on other Cambodian officials, including Hun Sen, his family, senior ministers and military commanders, via the Cambodia Democracy Act 2018, which passed the US House of Representatives last month and is now for debate by the Senate.
The official results could also prompt the EU to take next punitive steps. It has dithered for months on whether to oust Cambodia from its preferential “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme, which grants tax-free status to imports from Cambodia. The tariff relief is essential for the country’s crucial export-driven garment sector, a US$10 billion industry.
But will the international community act? Some analysts think it will, while others believe pragmatism could prevail in the form of dialogue with the new CPP government. There’s also the possibility that with the elections complete that the CPP will try to placate foreign governments.
Of particular importance is jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha’s bail hearing on August 22. Several previous bail requests have been denied, though there is speculation he could now be temporarily released in order to appease critical governments. The EU and US included Kem Sokha’s release as part of their pre-election demands.
CPP spokespeople and the Justice Minister say politics won’t be a factor in the trial, even though Yun Bunleng, president of the Appeals Court, sits on the CPP’s Central Committee, as do numerous other judges. Dith Munty, president of the Supreme Court, sits on the CPP’s powerful permanent committee.
Kem Sokha received a royal pardon, reportedly at the insistence of Hun Sen, in late 2016 for a separate case and a lesser charge than treason. Some analysts think that another royal pardon might be on the cards. This could calm foreign governments, while also potentially mollifying some CNRP activists.
Yet his release might be too little, too late. The US’s Cambodia Democracy Act, if passed, can only be annulled if Cambodia is judged to be “conducting free and fair elections which allow for the active participation of credible opposition candidates” or under the more opaque condition of “ending government efforts to undermine democracy.”
The CPP, however, has made clear that it has no intention of reinstating the CNRP. No new elections, local or national, will be held in Cambodia for the next five years.
Geopolitics will also factor into the West’s response, particularly considering China’s rising role in the country. Opponents of removing Cambodia from the EU’s EBA scheme have tried to obfuscate the discussion away from politics, even though the scheme is specifically tied to democratic commitments.
Some have tried to put the measure into the context of the free trade versus protectionist debate, which is now geopolitically incendiary since the US-China “trade war” commenced in early July.
The connection was made explicit this month by the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, Xiong Bo. “It is our hope that the EU can seek to correct this path and take real action to uphold free trade,” he said during a speech, referring to the EBA scheme.
There are clearly concerns about whether the EU removing Cambodia from the EBA scheme would impact its relationship with China, which has grown closer in recent years. Unconfirmed reports say Chinese, as well as known Cambodian, officials are now busy lobbying EU officials in Brussels against lifting EBA privileges.