Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), won a hands-down victory in the General Elections held on July 29, 2018. Hun Sen’s regime is considered a strongman regime as he has been in power for more than three decades. He also exerts strong power in all branches of Cambodian elite power centers, holding sway over his party, the government and the military. He is the strongest leader in Cambodia, undisputed by other power centers.
The turnout for the election was apparently good, hovering at around 82 percent while previous elections hovered at around 60 to over 90 percent. The government claimed that the high turnout showed support for their policies and party, given that the voters had ignored the opposition’s call for a boycott. Like all elections, there are supporters and there are detractors. Those who support the government argued that the good turnout and the election results gave the government a powerful and legitimate mandate to rule. The west argued that due to the pressure tactics used by the government, the election was illegitimate and did not reflect the true will of the Cambodian people. Therefore, they rejected recognizing the results.
Opponents of the government argued that people were pressured to vote because the ruling party made it a constitutional duty to vote and labelled those who did not turn up as “traitors” and had charged several opposition leaders with treason for asking the people to boycott the election. The confrontation between government and opposition parties — 19 of them plus the disbanded Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) — made the election somewhat tense at points. The atmosphere surrounding the election was worked up although violence and bloodshed were comparatively low. While Western powers like Australia and the US withdrew from observing the elections, some of the monitors who were present at the election (including those from ASEAN countries) highlighted the mainly peaceful nature of the elections.
Critics (both domestic and overseas) also disputed the results and argued they were not fair to the people. They pointed to the disbanding of the CNRP and the imprisonment of its leader Kem Sokha as examples of the unfairness of the election. These were tactics that opponents of the regime claim were heavy handed. Other opposition leaders were either in exile while another was in the hospital due to an accident. The absence of a credible opposition was a major reason why critics argued that the election was not truly representative of the preference of the people. Strongman regimes are generally (although not always) not viewed favorably by Western liberal democracies that favor pluralism and competitive choices.
Perhaps the strongest critics are the western liberal democracies. The United States is preparing visa restrictions on Cambodian ruling government figures. The European Union may follow suit. There are even talks of some punitive trade measures from the West. If these sanctions are carried out, it may affect the economic well-being of Cambodia and its fledgling industries and agricultural production. It remains to be seen whether newfound allies and ASEAN countries can make up the shortfall potentially caused by any Western sanctions. Cambodia is an important member contributing to the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that was formed in December 2015. The idea is to have greater intra-regional trade amongst ASEAN countries and break down more barriers for goods to travel freely within the region. ASEAN as an organization may become more important as neo-liberal free trade worldviews in the West are being challenged by populism and anti-globalization forces. ASEAN in the past had also worked hard to integrate its newer socialist and/or illiberal CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) members, both economically and politically, to put an end to cold war attitudes, tensions and worldviews.
The government may try to reach out for reconciliation with opposition groups and the west. Alternatively, it may continue to opt for a strongman regime that continues to de-emphasize oppositional politics in the interest of accelerated national development.
The Cambodian government argued that because they had gone through a civil war, invasion and other conflicts in the recent past, Cambodia would be able to weather any punitive measures from the West. Up till the 1990s, Cambodia was engaged in a bloody civil war that had retarded their economic development for decades. They believed that Cambodia could dig deep into their heels and withstand any measures taken against the government by pro-democracy forces. Despite such determined pushback against punitive measures, in the long run, it may also be a no-detriment option to reach out to the West for some form of reconciliation. After all, Cambodia in the past had been a beneficiary of developmental help from the West and Japan, including infrastructure construction. There may be more to learn from and absorb from the West, even as Cambodia participates actively in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Russia and China could also compensate for possible Western sanctions against Cambodia. Like the pro-democrat and pro-Western groups, the government has cultivated its own ally which is the Chinese government. Beijing was keen to see their strongest Southeast Asian ally clear the election and remain in power. Hun Sen has been a strong ally of Beijing, and in the past has supported China in opposition to ASEAN moves and initiatives that were inconvenient and uncomfortable for Beijing’s interest. Besides Laos, Cambodia is the closest ally to Beijing within ASEAN. Therefore, the Cambodian election was watched and observed with great interest by China. Recently, another government friendly to Beijing, the Najib government in Malaysia, was defeated in a sensational election. The ruling coalition that lost in that Malaysian election had been in power since 1957. Beijing was anxious that the same outcome did not happen to the 33-year-old Hun Sen regime.
Beijing is keen to work with familiar regimes and has in the recent past faced some challenges brought about by changes in government amongst Belt and Road Initiative countries to its long-term planning in connectivity. For example, the change in government in Myanmar from military junta to a liberal democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the switch in Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksa government to Sirisena administration, and most recently the events in Malaysia, have disrupted long-term planning on the part of Beijing. Thus, it was most keen to see the Hun Sen regime stay in power and therefore — midway through the election campaign — China announced major infrastructure project investments in Cambodia, including a ring road in the capital city of Phnom Penh worth more than USD 250 million.
There can be two long term implications from the results of this election. The government may try to reach out for reconciliation with opposition groups and the west. The opposition groups have a strong civil society network and Western civil society support and can marshal considerable resources at their disposal. Some governments in other societies have chosen to co-opt civil society groups and opposition figures in the interest of diminishing dichotomous binary oppositional positions between pro-government and anti-government groups. Therefore, it may be important for the government to reach out to them for some form of reconciliation. Alternatively, the government may continue to opt for a strongman regime that continues to de-emphasize oppositional politics in the interest of accelerated national development without significant resistance. The choice would eventually be for the government and the people to make.
 In the past, the late King Norodom Sihanouk had presented an alternative source of charismatic power. The monarchy is still revered today but in a quiet constitutional manner.