Amid the decline of global democracy over the past two decades, one country that hasn’t received much attention from geopolitical observers is Cambodia, which has suffered under the rule of political strongman Hun Sen and, more recently, his son Hun Manet, who took over as the country’s prime minister in August. This Southeast Asian nation is playing an increasingly important role in the geopolitical competition between the United States and China.
The most obvious manifestation of the collapse of democratic politics and return of authoritarianism in Cambodia was the outcome of Cambodia’s 2018 general election, compared to the 2013 election. In 2018, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “won” all 125 seats in parliament. Just five years earlier, Cambodia was on the verge of a power transition: The opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), secured 55 seats with 44.5 percent of the vote, second only to the CPP’s 68 seats with 48.8 percent of the vote. The opposition’s success came amidst widespread allegations by both the opposition and international observers that the ruling party had engaged in widespread electoral fraud.
The 2013 general election and the year-long protests against electoral fraud marked Cambodia’s closest encounter with true democracy since the U.N.-organized elections of 1993. Without the fraud, Cambodia would have experienced a peaceful transfer of power in 2013 and moved closer to a democratic path. Although the political struggle ultimately ended with Hun Sen retaining his leadership position, the election results and the protests demonstrated the depth of the people’s desire for change and significantly undermined Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule. At the time, it seemed that authoritarianism in Cambodia was on the decline, with the corrupt and increasingly unpopular Hun Sen government being voted out of office in the next election as a real possibility.