Politicians Court Foreign Support in Post-Election Showdown

Anyone who cares to know who Prime Minister Hun Sen and his perennial political rival Sam Rainsy are looking to for support as both claim victory in last month’s national election need only consider the ambassadors each met with last week.

Two days after the poll, with unofficial results showing major gains for his opposition CNRP, Mr. Rain­sy made his first post-election call on U.S. Ambassador William Todd. Mr. Hun Sen, whose ruling CPP was quick to claim another—if much diminished—victory, had his first two diplomatic meetings two days later with the am­bassadors of Germany and China.

With no quick fix to the contested election in sight, and each side digging in on their respective claims of victory, both men are looking to shore up support from their main foreign allies, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian National Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

“First, Hun Sen will seek continued reassurances of Chinese support. Second, Hun Sen is sending a signal to his domestic and foreign critics that they can pressure him all they want over the conduct of the election but the CPP regime has China’s backing,” Mr. Thayer said.

Mr. Hun Sen used his meeting with Chinese Ambassador Bu Jian­guo to insist-—contrary to claims by the opposition and some legal experts—that his party could still form the next government even if the CNRP tries to boycott the first meeting of the National Assembly.

And in Kandal province on Friday, in only his second public speech since the poll, the prime minister said other countries, namely China, would be happy to step in if Washington pulls its aid, as some U.S. lawmakers are proposing if it is finally decided that the elections were not free and fair.

“If you are brave enough, cut it [aid money] off,” Mr. Hun Sen said to the U.S. lawmakers who had called for the funding freeze, just before reminding them of the military trucks Beijing donated in 2010 when Washington canceled a similar shipment over human rights concerns.

China, which does not have general elections, was also one of the first countries to congratulate Mr. Hun Sen after the CPP declared victory. Bangladesh, Burma, Hungary and Vietnam have followed suit.

Mr. Rainsy, who has spent much of the past few years lobbying U.S. and European lawmakers, is looking West.

“Sam Rainsy will continue to seek support from the U.S. and European nations for his allegations that the elections were not free and fair. His visit with the U.S. ambassador is a signal that Sam Rainsy, too, has powerful external friends,” Mr. Thayer said. “The U.S., through [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, has already warned Cambodia of leaning too much on China.”

Only a day after the elections, in Washington, the U.S. State Department expressed concern about reports of election-day irregularities and called for a “full and transparent” investigation.

Though a State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. was not ex­pressly backing the opposition’s own call for an investigation, the government appeared to take it that way. The very next day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement advising all diplomatic missions to stay out of Cambodia’ internal affairs and specifically not to support the opposition.

Since the election, Mr. Rainsy has been saying all the right things about China in the Chinese press, supporting its One China policy and its claims to islands in the South China Sea. On the campaign trail, however, the opposition leader picked up a good deal of popular support by spurning the sort of controversial mining and agri-business projects Beijing is heavily invested in here.

To protect those investments, and avoid the instability a political handover could bring, Mr. Thayer said Beijing will keep backing the CPP.

“Privately, China will be concerned at the swing to the opposition because it is likely to be critical of China. China will also be concerned over any instability that could affect Chinese residents or Chinese investments in China,” he said. “Privately, China will offer whatever support is necessary to assist its clients in the CPP.”

What China wants out of these elections more than anything else is the status quo, said Ian Story, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. For the time being, he said, that still means backing Mr. Hun Sen.

“Since 1997, bilateral relations have strengthened considerably and Chi­na’s political, economic and strategic interests have been advanced under [Prime Minister] Hun Sen. Beijing will therefore have been satisfied with the outcome of the election as it provides continuity,” Mr. Story said.

“There is growing competition for influence between Washington and Beijing in Southeast Asia,” he added. “So long as Hun Sen remains in power, China will have the inside track in Cambodia.”

Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy are both still claiming victory. The Na­tional Election Committee, though widely perceived as favoring the CPP, is not expected to release official results until the middle of the month.

With everything still to fight for, political analyst Lao Mong Hay agreed that there was nothing haphazard about the two countries Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy chose to call on first. “They are looking for the respective support of these two powers,” he said.

While an ego-bruised Mr. Hun Sen turns to Beijing for reassurance, he said, Mr. Rainsy can thank Wash­ing­ton for keeping up the pressure that helped secure his return from abroad—where he was avoiding convictions widely be­lieved to have been politically motivated—just ahead of the elections.

But Mr. Mong Hay said the post-election showdown will ultimately turn on domestic factors most, especially how and when Mr. Rainsy chooses to mobilize the millions of Cambodians who voted for the opposition and gave the CPP its toughest political fight in 20 years.

Whatever roles China and the U.S. may play, he said, “The biggest factor is his [Mr. Rainsy’s] support across the country—that the majority of people are against the ruling party.”

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