EU monitors have declined to label last weekend’s Cambodian elections as unfair despite saying they failed to live up to international standards. Martin Callanan, the head of an EU election monitoring team, said Sunday's poll was dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) which was returned to power. He said CPP’s massive resources allowed "accusations of lack of impartiality to be made.” But Callanan pointedly didn’t make those accusations directly and he failed to back up the opposition Sam Rainsy party who alleged widespread vote rigging and who called on the international community to reject the result.
Prime Minister Hun Sen extended his 23 year rule when his CPP won 91 of the 123 seats in the Sunday election. Although final results will not be announced until sometime in August, election officers said the ruling party had taken at least 62 per cent of the vote in five of the nation's 24 provinces. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy rejected this and called for renewed balloting in Phnom Penh, where his party is strongest. He claims 200,000 people in the capital were ineligible to vote after their names were struck off registration lists. "Neither party won more than two-thirds of the seats," he said.
But despite Rainsy’s rhetoric, the CPP victory was not really a surprise. Hun Sen had been widely tipped to win for months and ran a very astute campaign. The country has been greatly normalised since the disastrous wars that devastated the country between the 1970s and 1990s. Cambodia was admitted to ASEAN in 1999. The Cambodian economy has been booming for the last few years and the quality of life is improving in one of the world's poorest nations. Cambodia's GDP grew by an impressive 13.4 percent in 2005, driven by garment exports, tourism, foreign investment, a construction boom, and record crops in agriculture.
In the last month, Sen has also capitalised on the nationalist sentiment sparked by the border feud with Thailand over the Preah Vihear Khmer temple complex. Now that the election is over Hun Sen is sounding more conciliatory but says the impetus to solve the two week dispute lies with Thailand. The foreign ministers of both countries have agreed to consider withdrawing troops from the area. Hun Sen claimed there was no problem on the Cambodian side. “The problem is with the Thai side. We understand their difficulty,” he said. “They need discussion and approval of the cabinet.”
UPI Asia Online believes Hun Sen’s victory should be attributed to the system of government the CPP put in place when it was a fully-fledged communist party in the 1980s. They added a democratic veneer in 1993 when the country theoretically embraced parliamentary democracy, but the CPP remained in firm control. The ruling party has utilized this system to get itself re-elected over and over since its defeat in the UN organised election in 1993.
The CPP controls all the key state apparatuses including the National Election Committee, the judiciary, security forces, civil service and educational institutions. They also maintain a de facto near-authoritarian control over the nation’s media. They run nationwide television and much of radio as well as constraining the non-party owned press. Reporters Without Borders said that in advance of the election there were fears that the ruling party would tighten its grip still further on electronic media with Hun Sen saying that he plans to stay in power for another 20 years.
There is still much work to be done in that time. Ian Lloyd Neubauer says Cambodia remains one of the least-developed countries in the world. Neubauer is a former Cambodian-based journalist and author of the novel “Maquis” whose theme is civil unrest in the country. He says Cambodian democracy exists in name only and the legal system works on a user-pays basis. “Alcoholism, methamphetamine use, prostitution, violence against women, land grabbing, unemployment and malnutrition are endemic,” he says.