PHNOM PENH: As Cambodia’s ruling party gets primed to launch its campaign on Saturday (Jul 7) for what is seen as an election it cannot lose, the nation is preparing for a vote with few real choices.
This election - to be held on Jul 29 - offers a clear path to an overwhelmingly absolute victory for the government.
A choice vacuum has emerged following the abolition and dismantling of the nation’s main opposition - the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). It was a dramatic development orchestrated by the government, in sync with the country’s legal system.
In 2013, the struggle for power was in the balance - the opposition then, and as recently as 12 months ago, had legitimate hopes of an electoral breakthrough. The CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha, last year at the helm of a momentum-building commune election campaign, is now languishing in prison, detained over charges of treason and yet to be granted a trial.
Under a newly constructed party law, his alleged crime, dismissed by critics as blatant political targeting, was legal justification for the entire opposition’s dissolution. Its main players were pursued and several have fled overseas.
“This group never helped with anything. They have no willingness to push for the building and developing of the country.” said CPP spokesman Sok Eysan.
This time, Prime Minister Hun Sen will campaign for weeks around the country, beginning in the capital on the weekend, knowing his three-decade hold on power is under no threat.
There are 125 National Assembly seats to be contested and all but a largely irrelevant handful will probably fall back to the ruling party.
This time the CPP is pitted against a motley collection of 19 other parties. Several of them have been cobbled into existence - evidence, the government says, that democracy has actually improved in Cambodia due to their presence at the ballots.
They are under resourced and mostly unknown to the majority. Other tired outfits like the royalist Funcinpec party hold little sway with today’s voters.
The national legislature, already for the past half-decade a house to rubber stamp the government’s policies, will be monopolised by the old guard again. The new period of “de-facto one-party rule”, as described by Cambodian expert Sebastian Strangio, is under no threat.
While this will not be a contest for power it could still be a referendum on the popularity of Hun Sen. He still craves the adoration of voters, according to political analyst Ou Virak, and has been softening his public image accordingly.
“He’s still competing with himself,” Virak said. “He needs to show that he can get 90 seats again. That’s going to be important for the narrative.
“He will be calculating how to stay in power and seeing who he has to neutralise but also deep down he wants to be not just loved, but revered,” he said.
Hun Sen has made dozens of public appearances in front of hundreds of thousands of people over the past year. An “amazing” election announcement, expected to be unveiled at the CPP campaign launch by the prime minister, will be just the latest in a range of populist promises that have effectively nullified potential conflict with eminent voting blocs such as garment workers.
The government points towards a fast growing economy - annual GDP growth has been about 7 percent each year since 2011 - and boosted worker wages - up from a minimum of US$60 per month in 2013 to US$170 currently - as a sign of its good work.
The only dilemma for those opposed to his ongoing rule, which began back in 1985, could be whether to turn up to vote. His inevitable victory will be now likely measured by one factor - turnout.
A climate of fear prevails for those taking a path of abstention, however. There will be pressure both real and perceived after July 29 - one of the outcomes of using indelible ink to indicate whether an individual has voted is pressure to go and cast a ballot.
“How many percent of people will go out to fulfill their duties as citizens? We are waiting to see,” said Sok Eysan.
Some urban voters could take a stand of silence - cities have typically been opposition strongholds - but in smaller, tight knit communities in rural areas - long strongholds for the CPP - a clean finger is a visible reminder to powerful local leaders of those who may have chosen the path of proxy protest.
Following deadly crackdowns on real demonstrations in 2013 and 2014, social media has become a tool for both dissent and the flexing of influence - Hun Sen has more than 10 million followers on Facebook, significantly more than the number of registered users in the country. He uses the medium to broadcast his speeches and highlights of his increasingly frequent public appearances.
But the online sphere is more treacherous than ever as an arena to illuminate the nation’s political schism. A fake news bill targeting local news outlets and social media was confirmed on Thursday.
The prime minister has already threatened to take legal action against anyone posting online that they would not vote. And a recently introduced lese majeste law has increased concerns of a crackdown on freedom of speech.
The nation’s press now acts as little more than a tool for the government’s agenda. Independent outfits have been extinguished or placed under more CPP-friendly management structures, journalists have been harassed and pro-government mouthpieces now dominate all mediums.
The country’s press freedom score has worsened since the last election, its corruption perception rating remains one of the worst in the world and when it comes to political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House rates Cambodia as “unfree”, the lowest assessment.
WAR AND PEACE
When combined with the boldness of the government to turn away from nations and bodies that have traditionally been their economic providers, it leaves Cambodia on a delicate path.
China - which places no restraints or overt guidance when it comes to the democratic process - is a major bankroller and undeniably the government’s most crucial ally.
Beijing has invested or loaned tens of billions of dollars in recent years and billions more are in the pipeline. A rare visit by Xi Jinping to the kingdom in 2016 came with a bevy of bilateral deals.
Japan - one of the largest foreign aid and investment contributors to Cambodia - has been the target of the opposition’s protests for providing technical assistance and funding for the election. Both the United States and European Union have withdrawn donor support.
This has not deterred the CPP on its current path, which it promises is one leading towards economic prosperity and peace. Tales and threats about the ravages of war, still raw in Cambodia’s memory following the horror years of the Khmer Rouge, are constant in Hun Sen’s messaging.
But the use of violent rhetoric acts as a hanging threat over a hushed population. There is impunity among the ruling party ranks and the entire apparatus, as investigated recently by Human Rights Watch - the military, police and body guard units.
For months, the CPP has contended that the opposition was nullified to prevent a “colour revolution”. But observers contended that the CNRP’s inexperienced civilians and jumble of misaligned political hopefuls had only one hope of any kind of viable transition - through the polling booth.
But that cannot happen.
Among the powerful now there is a building cult of leadership in the absence of a contest which, after Cambodia goes to the polls, is expected to continue.