PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This surely is not what the United Nations had in mind when it helped resurrect Cambodia from decades of war in 1993.
Twenty years ago, the UN helped the country stage its first post-Khmer Rouge elections with the promise of setting a devastated land on the long and rocky road to democracy.
On Monday, true to the constitution, King Norodom Sihamoni dutifully opened and swore in a new parliament after national elections here in July. And on Tuesday, parliamentarians universally approved longtime leader Hun Sen for another five-year term as prime minister.
The trouble is, nearly half the men and women voted into office aren’t there.
Members of the country’s main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), are instead some 200 km north of the capital, boycotting the opening of parliament in protest of another flawed election.
With only the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its 68 lawmakers filling the new National Assembly’s 123 seats, Cambodia now is very literally the one-party state it has long felt like under strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After 28 years of uninterrupted rule, the ex-Khmer Rouge soldier turned defector has gradually tightened his grip on all levers of local power, from a beholden military to a cowed media. And after Monday’s swearing-in, parliament no longer has an opposition even in name.
But the CNRP remains defiant. On Tuesday, after parliament approved another term for Hun Sen, it vowed continued protest.
“The first National Assembly session ... is a joke,” opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Monday in Siem Reap City, where he and his lawmakers-elect were holed up for the day. “What they did [Monday] is against the law and against the constitution.”
Whether or not that’s true has lawyers, election monitors and constitutional experts divided. CPP-dominated parliaments of the past have amended the constitution enough times that Monday’s session may — technically — be legal.
But that doesn’t make it democratic, and there’s reason for even Hun Sen to care about that.
For all its powers of incumbency, an entrenched patronage system and a pliant local media conveniently disinterested in the opposition, Hun Sen’s CPP lost seats in the assembly this year for the first time ever since the UN-sponsored elections of 1993. Official results say the party held on to power by less than five percent of the vote, its smallest margin of victory ever.
With a populist message of doubling wages for garment workers, pensions for the old, a war on corruption and (less tastefully) some racially tinged rhetoric about Vietnamese immigrants and investment, the opposition has tapped into a wellspring of anti-government sentiment long boiling beneath the surface.
For a population now mostly born after the Khmer Rouge crumbled in 1979, Hun Sen’s broken-record talk of saving Cambodia from that nightmare, of being the only man now equipped to keep the peace, means less and less. His promise of more of the same — more peace, more bridges, more growth — is not enough for an increasingly youthful and ambitious electorate.
In fact, there’s good reason to believe the CPP may not have won the vote at all.
Heading into the elections, three separate audits of the official new voter list, including the government’s own, found that roughly one in 10 registered voters had been wrongly left off the rolls. The audit by the US-based National Democratic Institute concluded that another tenth of the names on the new list do not belong to real people, but the country’s infamous “ghost voters.”
Election day problems corroborated those findings. Voters across the country showed up at polling stations only to find their names missing or to be told that someone had already cast their ballot. Election monitors reported local CPP officials stuffing ballot boxes and soldiers being trucked to polling sites where they weren’t registered to vote.
An investigation by the election committee suggested fraud but settled nothing. Packages of polling-day records that should have been securely sealed were found open or tied up with string, raising fears of vote tampering. Instead of resolving them, the committee eventually threw out every one of the opposition’s complaints.
Its legal options spent, the opposition finally took to Phnom Penh’s streets in a big way over the past few weeks. Tens of thousands of its supporters have staged some of the largest and most boisterous anti-government protests Hun Sen has had to face in a long while, demanding an independent investigation of the election before they agree to share any new government with the CPP.
Hun Sen will not agree to any investigation of the vote out of his control. But after weeks of demanding an independent assessment, an opposition reluctant to spend the next five years on the political sidelines may have a tough time convincing its supporters to accept anything less. If it tries to negotiate with Hun Sen — as its leaders have done in the past — the opposition could risk losing some or possibly many of them.
All that leaves little room for either side to maneuver.
To survive the next vote five years from now — ghost voters or not — Hun Sen and the CPP know they will have to change some things. If it wants a say in those changes, the opposition also knows it will have to take its seats at some point. The challenge for CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is to wring meaningful guarantees of reform out of his rival before then.
Having officially won a slim, if severely slashed, majority in parliament, the CPP says it has all the constitutional legitimacy it needs to get on with the business of governing on its own. If the opposition’s supporters are feeling left out, Hun Sen said they should blame the CNRP for not showing up.
Analysts, however, see only more trouble and violence ahead for Cambodia the longer the CPP presses on with a government missing half its lawmakers.
Tensions in Phnom Penh remain high. At the slightest hint of protest now, parts of the city are cordoned off with barbed wire barricades manned by armed police. A day of anti-government demonstrations on Sept. 15 left one man dead and several others injured when security forces fired into a crowd lobbing rocks.
Two decades after the promise of those 1993 elections — maybe the most free and fair Cambodia ever had — the road to democracy looks long and rocky as ever.