Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party will win a thumping victory in the July 27 national parliamentary elections, the fourth held since 1993. Outside one-party states, rarely can an election result be foretold with such confidence, but in Cambodia, the CPP’s continuing — indeed strengthening — grip on power is assured. At elections that observers expect to be broadly free and fair, the CPP will easily win enough seats to stay in power for the next five years.
That’s not to say the election process is perfect: There have been several deaths this campaign season resulting from local political disputes, but this is dramatically less than the first couple of elections when hundreds would die in centrally directed attacks from the political parties. Vote buying, while it exists, is modest compared to previous campaigns and certainly no worse than in neighboring democracies.
The CPP’s upbeat electoral prospects might puzzle Western audiences. After all, the CPP, under a different name, was Cambodia’s ruling party during the gloomy and isolated 1980s, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Today, under CPP rule, land-grabbing and impunity are rampant. So why is the CPP so popular? Simple: After decades of war and misery, the country is stable and Cambodians are today more confident about the future than they have been in almost 40 years.
Many voters attribute Cambodia’s stability and newfound economic vigor to the CPP. Earlier this year, a public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute revealed that 77% of Cambodians feel that Cambodia is generally heading in the right direction. The economy is in robust health, with growth roaring at around 10%, and employment opportunities are more plentiful than ever before. Infrastructure improvements, especially sealed roads, are hugely popular and closely identified with Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP. Many new roads, schools and parks are even named after the prime minister and other senior ministers.
It also helps that the CPP holds tight reins on the media, especially television, limiting negative coverage of itself. Newspapers are not controlled, so they can print very critical articles, but only a tiny proportion of the population reads them — compared to the more than 70% of the population that watches television. Opposition political parties thus have few avenues for reaching broad audiences of voters.
The CPP also benefits from the weakened state of its main competitors: the royalist Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Funcinpec is a shambles, reeling from self-inflicted wounds and the Machiavellian maneuvers of the shrewd CPP. A senior party official recently admitted that Funcinpec’s prospects were so dismal that it might be dissolved following the elections. The SRP is in better shape, largely because of its strong support in Phnom Penh. But in rural areas scores of SRP members have defected to the CPP, perhaps anticipating the CPP’s victory and vying for the lucrative positions in government that will be doled out after the election. In short, Funcinpec, the SRP, and the many other tiny parties are in no position to challenge the CPP’s ascendancy.
In policy terms, not much will change with the CPP victory. Economic growth and infrastructure development will preoccupy the government, while political freedoms and justice will take a back seat. If the economy continues to grow quickly, more and more Cambodians will have a chance of breaking free from poverty, and other indicators of human welfare will probably continue to improve.
The CPP appears to have mellowed somewhat with regard to dissent — probably owing to the absence of serious threats to its supremacy and a craving for international respectability — but will resist governance reforms that could weaken its control. In other words, Cambodia looks likely to settle on a trajectory to economic prosperity, coupled with an intolerance of dissent and political challenge.
Mr. Brazier is Cambodia country representative for the Asia Foundation in Phnom Penh.