Understanding Cambodia’s Upcoming National Assembly Elections

Backgrounder by Amanda Greenberger

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen casts his vote

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen casts his vote during the Cambodian general elections on July 28, 2013 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Nicolas Axelrod/Getty Images)

On July 29, Cambodians will head to the polls to vote in national elections held once every five years. The ruling party, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is widely predicted to win by a landslide, especially after successfully dismantling the main opposition party in late 2017. Cambodia’s national elections are set to take place just months after the CPP won every available seat in the February Senate elections. Multiple experts have expressed concern in the past couple of years about Hun Sen’s growing authoritarian rule and the implications for Cambodia’s fragile democracy. This backgrounder provides information on Cambodia’s democratic history, recent political events, and what this means for the upcoming elections.

A Short History of Cambodian Democracy

Like many countries in East and Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s democracy is very young and its path to democracy has been bumpy. The country originally dabbled with democratic institutions when it shifted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1947, but this initial democratic experiment was fairly circumscribed. The country effectively became a one-party state after King Sihanouk became Prime Minister Sihanouk in 1955. In 1970, then-Prime Minister Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak overthrew Sihanouk and established the Khmer Republic, creating a new military dictatorship, though it continued to play lip service to the principles of liberal democracy. Cambodia’s slide back into authoritarian rule was complete in 1975, when Pol Pot established Democratic Kampuchea under the communist Khmer Rouge. This was a period of extreme violence, during which over 1.7 million Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge. In 1977, war broke out with Vietnam, leading to an occupation that lasted until 1989. During this period, Vietnam established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which was to be led by the pro-Vietnamese Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party. It was during this time, in 1985, that Hun Sen was first appointed Prime Minister of Cambodia.

The era of turmoil caused by the Cambodian-Vietnamese War was not concluded until peace negotiations in Paris resulted in the 1992 comprehensive peace agreement. This formalized the Vietnamese withdrawal and established the UN Transnational Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). UNTAC was given full authority to enforce the ceasefire and oversee national elections. Notably, this became Cambodia’s most widespread democratic experience. Close to 90 percent of Cambodia’s eligible voters participated in the May 1993 elections. The National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), led by Prince Ranariddh, won 45.5 percent of the vote, followed by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Unfortunately, FUNCINPEC’s failure to secure a full majority resulted in the creation of an unstable coalition government led by two co-prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

According to its new constitution, Cambodia was now a constitutional monarchy with a multiparty liberal democracy. Despite the hopeful beginning of the 1993 elections, however, the UNTAC failed to establish the necessary civilian institutions and governance structure to support Cambodia’s fledgling democratic system. While UNTAC largely succeeded in overseeing free and fair elections, they fell short in the more difficult tasks of “disarm[ing] and demobiliz[ing] the factions, reconstruct[ing] infrastructure, and establish[ing] the rule of law.” Competing factions from the warring era continued to dominate the country at a local level through force. Cambodia also lacked an established civil society given its history of authoritarian rule—a reality that was not adequately addressed by the UNTAC. As a result, Cambodia’s personality-driven, highly centralized governance model continued to flourish, with little effort to build independent checks and balances throughout society. In hindsight, it is little surprise that when UNTAC withdrew from Cambodia after only 19 months, the government was largely incapable and uninterested in maintaining a strong democratic system.

Given the underlying weaknesses of the structures put in place by UNTAC, Cambodia’s new democracy was fairly short-lived. By 1997, Hun Sen, one of the country’s two co-Prime Ministers, launched a coup against Prince Ranariddh, his counterpart, using the CPP’s troops. Ranariddh fled to Paris and high-ranking members of his FUNCINPEC party were arrested and executed. Hun Sen claimed that the coup was a government action targeting paramilitary anarchy sponsored by Ranariddh. In reality, FUNCINPEC had been forming an alliance with the main opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, in an attempt to force the CPP out of power. In the 1998 elections that followed the next year, Hun Sen became sole prime minster after being confirmed by his own party. Notably, however, he only won 41 percent of the vote and large-scale protests broke out in Phnom Penh after the election calling for his resignation. At least 18 demonstrators were killed, although the actual number is likely much higher. In an effort to tamp down domestic opposition and solidify his position as prime minster, Hun Sen agreed to form a coalition government with his FUNCINPEC opponents in November 1998.

Since the early 1990s, Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia in a semi-authoritarian style, with limited influence actually granted to opposing voices. In the post-1998 environment, regular elections are held, but with the sole purpose of lending democratic legitimacy to the CPP. In reality, Cambodia lacks the legitimate state institutions needed to support a functioning democracy.

Cambodia’s Opposition Struggles

Despite this personalized system of government in Cambodia, the existence of a popular opposition movement has been a lasting threat to Hun Sen’s power. Founded in 1995 as the Khmer Nation Party, the Sam Rainsy Party (renamed in 1998) was one of the first opposition groups to gain real political power. Even within his own party, Hun Sen was not all-powerful. It was not until the death of his main rival, Chea Sim, in 2015 that he was able to control all the competing factions within the CPP.

The legitimacy of the 1998 elections is highly controversial. Initially, international observers, including the UN-coordinated Joint International Observer Group, announced they were free and fair, in part because of the high level of technical quality and electoral professionalism, but also because the fledgling democracy has successfully organized nation-wide elections without outside intervention. However, there were also high levels of harassment towards candidates and party workers prior to the elections, prompting critics to argue that the elections were not truly democratic. In the equally disputed 2003 elections, the CPP again did not win the necessary two-thirds majority to form a government as the Sam Rainsy Party, the main opposition, was gaining in popularity. After a year of political deadlock and negotiations, the CPP formed another coalition government with FUNCINPEC.

In 2013, Cambodia had an "almost democratic breakthrough.” In 2012, the two primary opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, joined to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). This newly formed opposition won an unprecedented percent of the vote in the 2013 elections, earning them 55 seats in the National Assembly, only a few points behind the CPP’s 49 percent. These election results were a shock to Cambodian politics since this was the highest percentage of votes an opposition party had ever won. They indicated, for the first time, that opposition voices were actually capable of having influence in the government. Analysis suggests that one reason why the opposition was highly successful was that they were able to utilize social media to rally popular support. The ruling party failed to properly establish a social media presence until after 2013 when they realized its potential political influence. This marked a significant advantage for the CNRP—Hun Sen’s control over the media was weakening because more Cambodian’s were getting information from the internet, rather than traditional news outlets. Internal politics within the CPP also played a role, as roughly half the members did not vote for the party.

After the elections took place, however, the CNRP boycotted parliament, refusing to take their seats in the National Assembly for a year. They argued that they would have won more than 55 seats if not for widespread voter tampering and election interference—a claim supported by Human Rights Watch. The government retaliated against the CNRP boycott and growing national protests with violent police brutality, providing batons and electric cattle prods to untrained "public order officers" to disperse protestors. After a year of negotiations, the boycott was ended when the ruling coalition made several significant concessions. These reforms included appointing a new bipartisan electoral commission, an enhanced role for the opposition in the National Assembly, the release of several imprisoned opposition leaders, and parliamentary immunity, among other things. Unfortunately, rather than implementing these reforms, the CPP quickly rescinded the concessions as part of a broader move by Hun Sen to eliminate potential political opposition.

Cambodia’s Shift Toward Authoritarianism

The institutional crackdown in Cambodia has significantly increased in the lead up to the 2018 elections, showing a direct agenda by Hun Sen to reconsolidate his power in wake of the surprisingly contested 2013 elections. This has resulted in the complete dismantlement of organized opposition, leaving the CPP and supporting factions as the only viable parties participating in the elections.

In 2017, both opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, were forced out of power. Sam Rainsy resigned from his position as leader of the CNRP because of a measure put in place that would dissolve any political party that was led by someone convicted of a crime. As a longtime critic of Hun Sen’s ruling party, Sam Rainsy had been accused and convicted several times of criminal defamation. Kem Sokha was arrested and imprisoned under questionable circumstances in September of 2017 for treason and plotting to undermine the government. The Supreme Court of Cambodia then ordered the dissolution of the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), for attempting to launch a ‘color revolution’ with U.S. backing. This ruling also banned 118 CNRP members from participating in politics for five years and redistributed their parliamentary seats to the CPP.  Collectively, these moves effectively eliminated the only functional body of opposition from Cambodian politics and reconsolidated power in the hands of Hun Sen.

The government has also manipulated the judiciary and media as part of their efforts to reestablish control over the country. More than half the CNRP members are in self-imposed exile for fear of being arrested. Human rights activists, journalists, and NGO workers have been targeted with politically motivated lawsuits. In September of 2017, The Cambodian Daily, the oldest and most widely read English-language news outlet, was forced to close down after being saddled with a $6.3 million tax bill. Just a few months later, the Phnom Penh Post, widely considered to the “the last bastion of free press,” was sold to new owners with entrenched connections to the Cambodian government. Over 30 independent radio stations, including Radio Free Asia and Voice for America, have been shut down, effectively cutting off the primary source of non-government controlled information from most rural areas. (Radio Free Asia is now transmitting from outside the country). Authorities have also utilized Facebook and other social media outlets to identify potential critics, carrying out over a dozen arrests of individuals who posted criticisms of the CPP.

Is There a Functional Opposition?

With the dissolution of the CNRP and the exile or imprisonment of opposition leadership, Cambodia’s opposition is now fractured and disorganized. Over twenty parties have registered with the National Election Committee (NEC) to participate in the July 2018 elections, most of which are not aligned with the CPP. Notable groups include the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), the League for Democracy Party, and the Khmer Will Party. However, these groups lack a cohesive mission. Most of these parties also lack tangible political influence, many of them being newly formed and others having performed poorly in previous elections.

As of January 2018, the foreign-based members of the dissolved CNRP (people who have fled and are in exile) have organized a new opposition group known as the Cambodian National Rescue Mission (CNRM) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy. While they will not have any members participating in the July elections and are not registered with the NEC, they advocate for free and fair elections and the release of CNRP leader Kem Sokha. Most importantly, the group was formed with the purpose of calling for non-violent protests and demonstrations throughout the country to put pressure on the government to reverse its political crackdown. In response, the Cambodian government labeled the CNRM as a terrorist organization almost immediately after its formation, authorizing the military to use force against CNRM protestors. Unfortunately, this newly-established movement has not had the widespread support Sam Rainsy and others hoped for. Many individuals have refused to align with any group other than the CNRP and others fear retaliation it they associate with the new party.

What’s Next?

General consensus from both analysts and policy-makers alike is that Hun Sen’s CPP will win by a landslide in the July 2018 elections. However, there is little interest in the elections among the population and a low voter turnout is expected, which sets a different tone from the excitement of the 2013 elections.

Some critics were hopeful that the recent political crackdown had the potential to trigger a public uprising against the CPP. Immediately after the CNRP was dismantled, anti-government protests broke out, to such an extent that Hun Sen at one point considered cancelling the 2018 elections. Initially, many were optimistic that this was the start of a “Cambodian Spring” and a turn towards democratization. However, the protests were not sustainable without organized leadership. The violent reaction from the government to peaceful protests has also dissuaded many from participating. Furthermore, the ruling party is currently at its most powerful. Hun Sen has consolidated power within his own party and the CPP maintains control of all major government institutions, leaving little prospect of success for potential opponents.

In the face of these obstacles, the many remaining opposition parties lack a clear consensus about their next steps. As of May 2018, several, including the GDP, have threatened to boycott the elections in protest, while others have begun campaigning to garner public support. "CNRP supporters at the grassroots level have described the situation as living without a head.” Given the number of parties registered for the upcoming elections, Hun Sen claims that Cambodia is becoming more democratic and has the chance of developing into a multi-party democracy. In reality, the sheer number and lack of cohesion will split the opposition vote and prevent them from having any real political influence.

Hun Sen also appears determined to maintain enough of the guise of democratic legitimacy to avoid any sustained international punishment. The regime has invited over 50,000 foreign observers to monitor the upcoming election. An NEC representative claimed, “This shows that the election is open, the participation is comprehensive and that there is a lot of trust in the election.” However, none of these observers will be provided by the UN; the majority will come from China and Myanmar.

The U.S. has promised to take “concrete steps” against Cambodia for its treatment of the opposition. After the CNRP was dissolved, the United States and the European Union suspended their aid to Cambodia’s NEC. However, despite these measures, “broad international consensus that could force Hun Sen’s hand has largely failed to materialize." Cambodia is also assured of diplomatic support from China, the country’s biggest foreign donor, which has pledged equipment and support for July’s elections.” Although the EU and North America were responsible for over 70 percent of Cambodia’s 2015 exports, they have not taken steps to impose sanctions, a move that would have a significant impact on the ruling regime. The Cambodian government has gone so far as to challenge the U.S. to suspend all aid rather than just financial support for elections, making it clear that they do not rely on international approval to legitimize their election results.

While there are few prospects for near-term democratic change in Cambodia, some observers remain hopeful that Cambodia’s large youth demographic may eventually demand a more accountable system. In the 2013 elections, one factor that contributed to the CNRP victory was a never-before-seen increase in youth political engagement. Approximately 3.5 million of the 9.5 million registered voters were between the ages of 18 and 30. Many observers were optimistic that this phenomenon would be repeated in the 2018 elections. While this trend of interest for change seems to have been maintained, the youth, like the opposition parties, lack organization to “peacefully promote and significantly strengthen democratic rights in Cambodia.” Furthermore, over the past several months, youth have been dissuaded from actively campaigning against the government, partially out of fear of government repression and partially out of disillusionment with an incapable opposition. The CPP, realizing the importance of the youth demographic, has also been making a distinct effort to attract younger voters by introducing policies to target issues such as poverty and minimum wage. While the youth movement against the CPP seems to be temporarily on hold, over 65 percent of the population is below thirty years old, indicating that even if Cambodia is not going to change in the 2018 elections, there is the potential for a democratic shift in the future.

As Cambodia heads into the final days before the national elections, there is little excitement for a fair, democratic outcome. However, although the system established around Hun Sen has quelled opposition voices, the past several decades have demonstrated the existence of a constant, underlying desire for democratization among the people.  Hun Sen may well maintain power until he is 74 years old, as he has promised, but the path the nation takes after his reign ends is not set in stone.

Amanda Greenberger is an intern at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Washington DC office.