Cambodia’s upcoming general election on July 29 looks set to be its most controversial since its first national election in 1993. In late 2017, the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved and 118 of its senior members were banned from politics based on what the ruling government deemed to be threats to peace and stability.
In response, the outlawed CNRP has called for a boycott of the election. And some local civil society groups, such as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, have opted not to observe the upcoming election. In addition, the United States and the European Union have withdrawn their support from the Cambodian National Election Committee, while Japan remains supportive of electoral reforms (though there are some pressures from the supporters of the opposition movement and civil society groups calling on Japan to withdraw its electoral support).
With the absence of the main opposition party, it is a foregone conclusion that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled the country for more than three decades, will win a landslide victory. The key question for the future of Cambodia now is how the upcoming election will shape the policy direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.
The CPP policy platform stresses three immediate deliverables: raising incomes, reducing electricity prices and strengthening the social safety net. But it falls short of showing strong political will to reform state institutions – particularly in terms of corruption, which is believed to be the root cause of many social and economic issues in Cambodia. And voters expect to see genuine political will and concrete measures in building clean and efficient state institutions.
The CPP is also facing foreign policy challenges. Its human rights situation is under tight scrutiny from the United States and the European Union, which are the two main export markets for Cambodian products.
In May 2018, the US Congress introduced the Cambodia Democracy Act to put targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for undermining democracy in Cambodia. And in June 2018, the chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, Hing Bun Heang, was sanctioned under Global Magnitsky Designations. The Cambodian authority has rejected the accusations and called the sanctions a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
In July 2018, the European Union sent officials to conduct a fact finding mission before it decides on whether or not Cambodia still deserves preferential tariffs under the Everything But Arms scheme. Following the mission, the European Commission issued a press release stating that “removing Cambodia from the trade scheme is a measure of last resort, if all our other efforts have failed to address these concerns”.
In an attempt to convince the international community that Cambodia is committed to democracy and human rights, the CPP announced its renewed focus on a social market economy, democratic values and putting people at the centre of the party’s political platform and development agenda, although details for this revised political doctrine are still scarce. Building its political identity based on “centrist democracy”, the CPP aims to address emerging issues such as income inequality and social injustice.
These changes sit among broader shifts in the CPP’s governance. The CPP is in the process of reforming its political ideology and identity to reflect the current realities in Cambodia. Historically rooted in communist ideology, the CPP (originally the Kampuchean People’s Revolution Party) reformed in the 1990s and shed its official commitment to liberal democracy. But institutional reforms within the CPP have been much slower due to factional tensions between conservatives and reformists.
Another challenge for the CPP-led government is its international image as a “client state” of China. The CPP has acknowledged this and taken some concrete measures diversify its strategic and economic partnerships, particularly in strengthening strategic partnership with Japan. But Cambodia still lacks a nuanced foreign policy strategy. In particular, Cambodia needs to develop a strategy to convince other countries that its deep strategic partnership with China is not at the expense of good relations with other countries.
Speaking the truth, acknowledging facts and seeking holistic solutions are key values that the CPP must embrace in order to strengthen public trust in the government. The ingrained culture of sycophancy that has protected leaders and stifled fresh ideas will need to be changed. Transformative leadership and institutional innovation are critical for the future of the CPP.
The prospects for reform in Cambodia depend on two defining factors. First, young and competent leaders must be brought into the CPP’s senior ranks. Second, state institutions must be strengthened, made more efficient and more effective by prioritising meritocracy and empowering technocrats and bureaucrats.
Looking forward, only robust reforms and transformative leadership can help the CPP-led government earn trust and respect from the people and strengthen its legitimacy. The leadership deficit needs to be overcome by giving more opportunities to young leaders and implementing meritocracy. And the government has to address structural issues such as corruption, income inequality and social injustice. Most importantly, the CPP should genuinely respect democracy and human rights.
Chheang Vannarith is visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.