Prime Minister Hun Sen controls the country with a raft of vague laws with which he could potentially shut down opposition parties, NGOs and media outlets at any time; seemingly directs the police and courts in order to harass opponents; maintains a huge private army that he calls his bodyguard unit; and openly admits that he would use military force before ceding power.
And yet the premier also capitulated to an opposition leader who simply hid out in the party headquarters for six months last year to evade arrest; allows English-language media to report critically and freely about the government; and continues to support both local and national elections every five years, under the supervision of foreign democracies, potentially imperiling the legitimacy of his rule.
The paradox of Mr. Hun Sen’s reign, politicians and analysts say, is that for all the appearances of near-absolute power, the long-ruling leader remains bound by various limits to his authority: the possibility of a popular uprising, foreign investors’ demand for stability, and potential restlessness within his government and military.
As Mr. Hun Sen moves headlong into a nationwide commune poll on Sunday, they point out that his unparalleled standing in Cambodia depends on meeting expectations across a swath of society.
Cambodian democracy was born under foreign eyes, when the U.N. organized and supervised the country’s transition to an electoral democracy in 1992 and 1993 after a decade of civil war.
Mr. Hun Sen, who was already prime minister of the previous Vietnam-backed government, had endured years as the head of a pariah state: U.N. members had imposed sanctions on the regime, while the U.S. simultaneously supported his opponents, the China-backed remnants of the Khmer Rouge, still active in the northwest of the country after being toppled in 1979.
International scrutiny and millions of dollars in aid were core components of the fledgling democracy after 1993. The calculus, however, has now shifted, observers say.
The scrutiny remains, with the U.N.’s human rights office maintaining its presence in the country, and Japanese, E.U. and U.S. organizations embedded within the National Election Committee (NEC) headquarters. International statements demanding respect for human rights are still released at a steady clip.
But the importance of aid from foreign democracies has dwindled.
Those countries’ leverage now rests on Cambodia’s economic reliance on exports to their markets, said Miguel Chanco, lead Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“The fact that exports to the EU and the US account for more than half of Cambodia’s total outbound shipments (57 percent in 2016, to be exact) gives the West significant leverage if Hun Sen’s regime was to take an even sharper turn to authoritarianism,” Mr. Chanco said in an email.
Mr. Hun Sen has frequently boasted in recent years of the country’s rapid economic growth, mostly propped up by garment and footwear manufacturing as well as a construction boom. On the back of the roughly 7 percent annual GDP growth, the CPP has pitched itself as the party of development.
Mr. Chanco, however, said that growth could be quickly wiped away.
The margins in Cambodia’s garments manufacturing are already low, in part because of steep minimum wage increases in recent years and the intense competition in Asia, he said.
“As such, it wouldn’t take any significant increase in Western trade barriers to put a good amount of pressure on Cambodia’s economy and by extension the government,” Mr. Chanco said.
Foreign businesses in the country would be expecting smooth elections, he said, and, “if needed, a smooth transition in power to avoid having to face reputational risks of operating in Cambodia.”
The World Bank has previously noted that election periods typically see a slowdown in foreign investment due to rising uncertainty; this time around, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly warned that the country would be plunged into civil war unless the CPP won the vote, and even said last week that he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment on whether it would consider trade barriers to promote democracy, while the E.U. ambassador’s office did not respond. The U.S. State Department earlier this month called for Cambodian elections to be “free from threats or intimidation.”
Seven board members of the U.S., European, German and British chambers of commerce in Cambodia either declined to comment or did not respond to questions.
“At some level, the main pressure boils down to money. Don’t scare the investors! They don’t like it when you go Kim Jong-un. It’s also an ugly reminder of Cambodia’s past, which the authorities are trying to shed,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, in an email.
“In a way, it’s a bit like the circus elephant who is tied with a very flimsy rope to a post. Seems like if the elephant wanted to, it could just break the rope and run off, but it doesn’t. Why? Because for years it was tied by a chain.”
Traditional forms of foreign pressure—aid and diplomacy—have apparently also retained some influence, in spite of the well-documented rise of China’s clout in Cambodia and the Asian neighbor’s apparent indifference to democracy and human rights.
Last year, current CNRP President Kem Sokha came under attack after leaked audio was posted online that purportedly showed him talking to a mistress. The country’s Anti-Corruption Unit soon summoned him to court over a promise of gifts the male voice makes in the recording.
To evade the court action—widely decried as a political ploy—Mr. Sokha refused to leave the CNRP headquarters except to register to vote in October. He was eventually granted a royal pardon at the request of Mr. Hun Sen in December.
The prime minister later confirmed the authenticity of a recording of his supposed negotiations with Mr. Sokha posted on the website of government mouthpiece Fresh News, claiming they showed that Mr. Sokha was his puppet. The recording, however, also shows Mr. Hun Sen apparently appeasing a foreign government.
“Go register to vote,” Mr. Hun Sen tells Mr. Sokha. “Believe me, I guarantee that if I don’t make an order for arrest…who will dare to disobey my order? Even if the court orders [it], we can still suspend the implementation of the order.”
“I told the Japanese Embassy the truth. Recently, has the Japanese Embassy informed you?” Mr. Hun Sen asks. “I guaranteed the Japanese deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and informed the Japanese Embassy.”
According to a study, “Autocratic Elections: Stabilizing Tool or Force for Change?” published in January by academic researchers from Oslo, elections are a double-edged sword for strongmen. Analyzing data from 259 autocracies, the researchers found that periods close to elections pose the greatest threat for the collapse of regimes, but that holding elections also appears to help them survive longer.
The study, by Carl Henrik Knutsen, Havard Mokleiv Nygard and Tore Wig, says elections “stabilize autocratic regimes in the medium to long term,” and push governments to build organizational capacity and also boost their legitimacy, reducing the incentives for overthrow among both opponents and foreign powers.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan raised a similar benefit as a reason for holding elections. “Elections bring people together,” Mr. Siphan said.
Through more than 20 years of elections, Cambodians have come to expect democracy in their country, he said.
“Since 1993 to now, the culture of pluralism has been building. The people understand and believe in diversity,” Mr. Siphan said. “We believe in elections. We believe elections bring more peace, stability and development.”
Mr. Siphan also warned, however, that the opposition CNRP was inciting people against the national institution of the government, and that the government had an obligation to uphold the rule of law.
In 2013, Phnom Penh was swept up in massive protests after reported irregularities in that year’s national election. A unified opposition, in the form of the CNRP, had pushed the CPP to the brink of defeat despite election observers saying there were potentially 1 million missing, duplicate and “ghost” names on the voter list.
Four years later, the opposition is reporting a significant increase in attendance at campaign rallies ahead of Sunday’s commune elections. The voter list has also been remade under the guidance of the E.U. and Japan.
Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs, said the recent emergence of Cambodian public pressure was compelling the government to hold credible elections, despite the risk of defeat.
“People push for change, and it’s best to channel that via elections,” she said, adding that legitimacy in the eyes of the free world remained a key reason that elections were still held in Cambodia.
But she also noted that the government had continued to arrest opposition and civil society members over dubious cases, and that the arrests were likely to increase post-elections. Rights group Licadho says there are currently 25 political prisoners in the country.
“What this regime [is] doing instead is oppressing via courts while maintaining a charade of multi party democracy by allowing some form of elections,” Ms. Monovithya said in an email.
John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said that in the end, only Cambodians can prevent violence from recurring.
“External pressures are unlikely to prevent the use of force. Even in 1997, when Cambodia was more reliant on international aid, the risk of sanctions did not deter its use of political violence,” Mr. Ciorciari said, referring to armed clashes in 1997 between troops loyal to the CPP and those of rival party Funcinpec.
“The main checks will be internal, and their strength will depend in significant part on the election outcome.”
“Some threats may be exaggerated, but the party’s willingness to use violence to hold on to power is certainly credible in light of its past practice.”
Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, published a paper earlier this year on Mr. Hun Sen’s “personalist dictatorship,” arguing that the premier’s control of the country and ruling party had become more significant than the party itself.
In an email, Mr. Morgenbesser said Mr. Hun Sen was nevertheless dependent on many moving parts both inside and outside his party.
“All authoritarian regimes require some degree of internal or external support—no dictator actually rules alone,” he said. “The key to understanding the longevity of Cambodia’s ruling party is its patron-client system.”
In his paper, Mr. Morgenbesser says that from early on, Mr. Hun Sen had turned to the distribution of patronage to keep elites and voters happy.
“The entire network is both partially interlocking, in that separate clusters of political elites can act in a unified way, and partially competitive, in that different factions of them jostle for perks,” he said last week.
Mr. Morgenbesser said elections usually encouraged cooperation within patronage networks in order to maintain their dominant positions, and any signs of loss of internal support did not bode well for the CPP.
“The worst case scenario for Hun Sen is a defection cascade, whereby a series of events compels people to withdraw public support for the ruling party. This would signal a loss of control for the CPP,” he said.
Political analyst Meas Nee said this week that there appeared to be cracks forming in the CPP’s unity.
During elections, the party banks on votes from government employees, but there were indications that the support was fading, particularly with concerns over salaries, corruption and the direction of the country, Mr. Nee said.
“People working for the government 20 years, 30 years, they still can’t get enough month to month,” he said.
The state budget, released in October, was expanded by more than 15 percent, with the bulk of the new money earmarked for increased civil servants’ salaries.
Mr. Nee said this showed the government was concerned about its internal support, but he doubted the money would make a difference.
“The people’s uprising before 2013 and after could indicate that they no longer control the popularity as in previous elections,” he said.
Meanwhile, the military may not be entirely unified behind the country’s leader either, Mr. Nee said.
Mr. Hun Sen’s threats of war—as well as similar ones from the heads of the Defense Ministry and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces—were not made against the CNRP, which has no army or weapons, Mr. Nee said.
Instead, they showed the prime minister was wary of potential rival factions within the military, he said.
“I think the CPP’s secret surveys are very effective, so they would know how the army feels about them, and [it seems] the prime minister thinks some part of the army doesn’t support his ideas of war,” Mr. Nee said.
Similarly to the civil servants, the government has pledged a 20 percent increase in the defense budget largely to pay for increased salaries. It has also been promoting hundreds of soldiers at a time to the rank of brigadier general in a show of “gratitude.”
Mr. Nee said he was likewise skeptical about the efficacy of the promotions. They would not appease soldiers who look at their circumstances and see that—whether or not they have a general’s star—they “still have an old motorbike.”
“The prime minister tries to control power, but the army might not be supportive,” he said.
The results of Sunday’s local elections would determine whether the CPP takes a turn toward greater authoritarianism and repression out of desperation, Mr. Nee added.
But for now, said Mr. Chanco, the economist, Mr. Hun Sen and his government may not have a very high bar to clear in order to appear to be a functioning democracy.
“Hun Sen is banking on the facade of a multi-party democracy with free-ish and fair-ish elections to mitigate the risk of punitive sanctions from the West,” he said.
“Furthermore, by holding elections, Hun Sen is hoping to mitigate the risk of domestic social unrest, which has arguably become more potent since the disputed 2013 election.”
“In the current ASEAN context—with democracy backsliding in the likes of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines—it doesn’t take much to look good in a weak team,” Mr. Chanco said.
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Phearun)