In less than four weeks, millions of Cambodians will head to the polling stations to exercise their democratic right to shape their country’s future. It will be the country’s biggest festival of democracy as 20 political parties are taking part despite a call for a boycott of the election by a dissolved political party.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, and the royalist National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) are expected to gain most of the seats in July’s election.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court in November 2017 for trying to overthrow the government through illegal means, and its exiled leader, Sam Rainsy, have called for a boycott of July’s elections, which many Cambodians and foreigners consider a blow to Cambodian democracy. Rainsy, who lives in exile and runs his political activities from an apartment in Paris, is facing several charges in Cambodian courts.
“Democracy is not possible without the people’s vote; it requires their participation. Cambodians must remember that a boycott is not a solution to the current political situation. They have a tough choice ahead of them. The first step is to vote in the democratic process,” Darren Touch, a Canada-based commentator, recently wrote on lowyinstitute.org.
For sure, Cambodians will elect their right leaders in the July elections, so what are the issues at stake in these elections?
The issues of peace, stability, democracy and economic development will dominate the election campaign.
In the past, the gentle Khmer people suffered death and destruction for a long time as the country became a playground for competing foreign powers. Only in recent decades has the country enjoyed peace, stability and prosperity, thanks to the ruling CPP and its leader Hun Sen.
The CPP, which had a glorious history during the liberation struggle and a major positive role in the country’s recent economic development, will possibly emerge as the biggest winner in the elections. The party was formed in 1951 under the name of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) and changed its name to the CPP in 1991.
It fiercely fought against the brutal atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, which killed more than 1 million Khmer people during its rule from 1975 to 1979.
After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement that ended the conflict in Cambodia, and in which Indonesia played a major role, the CPP began creating a peaceful environment and placing Cambodia on a positive trajectory. The main architect of this massive change is none other than Prime Minister
Hun Sen, who has been in the post since 1985.
The country’s achievements have been very impressive for the last 30 years. Cambodia’s economy grew at an average annual rate of over 8 percent between 2000 and 2010 and about 7 percent since 2011. Cambodia, according to World Bank, is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created in industries like textiles, footwear and tourism, thanks to rising exports and huge foreign direct investment. Last year alone, it received US$2.5 billion worth of foreign investments and this year, it may reach $3 billion.
There has been a significant improvement in people’s living conditions as the per capita income surged to US$1,435 in 2017, a huge jump from $1,042 in 2013. In 2006, the per capita income was just $536. Poverty rates dropped sharply from 53.5 percent in 2004 to 13.5 percent in 2014 and dropped further to less than 10 percent in 2017.
“Thanks to peace and political stability, Cambodia’s economy has been among the fastest-growing economies, unmatched by any other post-conflict society for the past two decades. Better yet, Cambodia has moved up classification-wise into a lower middle-income economy (from lower income) by the World Bank Group in 2015,” Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation says.
On the democratic side, Cambodia has successfully hosted free and fair elections several times. A multi-party system prevails in the country.
Some foreign countries and politicians like Rainsy allege that under the CPP Cambodia has been moving toward a one-party system. CPP leaders counter that there is nothing wrong if one party dominates the country’s politics as long as regular elections are held democratically. For example, China became the world’s second-largest economy under one-party rule and China is not even a democratic country.
The one-party domination, according to the CPP, should not be seen as repressive as it helps to remove legislative obstacles to economic development.
“It [China] is one-third of the world’s population, and how can we say that they are authoritarian? Their country has become a world economic superpower already, so it cannot be like that,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told the Phnom Penh Post recently.
Rainsy and human rights groups funded by foreign powers allege that the Hun Sen regime has become authoritarian, violating human rights and suppressing opposition.
Full-fledged democracy in any country is a dream. The level of democracy is different in every country. Cambodia may not be perfect but it has been trying to implement democracy according to the needs of the country. If there is no democracy, as some CPP leaders argue, how could the opposition party CNRP win 44 percent of the vote against the CPP’s 49 percent in the 2013 elections?
“Although Cambodia cannot claim to be a country with a perfect democracy, democracy remains alive and is thriving,” CPP lawmaker Yara Suos said in a statement published in The Jakarta Post recently.
Cambodia is a sovereign country that has its own constitution and rules. Rules must be respected. According to Cambodian officials, the courts have punished some opposition leaders through the legal process. But outside powers have described these court judgments as human-rights violations.
The CPP alleges that foreign powers use local parties like the CNRP to discredit the Cambodian government on the pretext of violations of human rights.
“We cannot allow any political party to invite foreign intervention in Cambodia’s domestic politics. Cambodia went through three decades of war because of foreign intervention. Cambodia will never allow such past atrocities to reoccur,” Yara said.
One should not forget that it was Cambodia that drafted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012 with the help of other ASEAN countries when it held the ASEAN chair.
The US and the European Union have refused to provide financial support to Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) to organize the election in July. Currently Japan and China are providing assistance to the NEC in organizing the election. The Western countries are threatening to impose sanctions on Cambodia over human-rights issues.
“As a small country, Cambodia has no interest in being at odds with superpowers and Western countries. Cambodia’s foreign policy is to promote and establish friendship and good cooperation with all countries in the world,” Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said in a statement recently.
Western countries, through their media as well as non-governmental organizations, have continuously attacked the Hun Sen regime with the single objective of removing him from power.
One has to think about what kind of human rights Cambodian people need. Poor Cambodians are more in need of rights like the right to education, food, health, housing and jobs than political rights such as are found in advanced democratic countries like Sweden or Norway. For all its faults, the Royal Cambodian government under the leadership of Hun Sen is determined to focus on much-needed economic development.