Cambodia may officially be a democracy, but call it one and you’ll get a swift reality check from anyone familiar with the Southeast Asian nation, where one month’s campaigning for general elections begins this week. Controversy over land rights, deforestation, extractive industries and rampant corruption has bolstered support for the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Nevertheless, only a miracle will unseat incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose obdurate hold on power has spanned almost 33 years — helped by voter irregularities, partisan media and blatant intimidation of his opponents.
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Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, has held power since the start of Vietnamese occupation in 1979, and closely controls every aspect of political, judicial and social life. “It’s a one-man band and this needs to be changed,” Keo Phirum, a CNRP candidate in Kratie province, tells TIME. All media are controlled by figures aligned with the ruling elite, with more than 90% of political broadcasts promoting the incumbent. Top judges, police officers and civil servants are also all party members. Not even the National Election Committee has the gloss of independence. Members are handpicked by Hun Sen and his allies.
Sam Rainsy, the leader of the CNRP, has been banished. He fled into exile, accused of racial incitement and destruction of property — trumped-up charges that are politically motivated, he insists. Convicted in absentia and given an 11-year sentence, the 64-year-old now continues opposition from abroad. Asked if he considered returning for the July 28 ballot, Sam Rainsy told TIME that his presence would only help legitimize a fundamentally flawed election. “It’s better for me to let Prime Minister Hun Sen, if [I can compare him] to a boxer, to cowardly avoid his only serious challenger before a match, and to let him box alone in the ring.” There are currently no opposition MPs in parliament — all 28 were expelled earlier this month for allegedly violating internal rules.
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CPP dominance really hits home outside Phnom Penh, along Cambodia’s potholed highways. Logos for the ruling party line the routes, while campaign slogans thunder from rural and provincial offices. Village chiefs control voter lists and can summarily disenfranchise any undesirables. “The playing field here is far from even,” says Laura Thornton, Cambodia director for the National Democratic Institute. “Many people will go to the polls on election day and not be able to vote.” Radio Free Asia and Voice of America play a crucial role in disseminating alternative views to rural Cambodians, as press intimidation is rife. Nevertheless, CNRP strongholds are mainly urban. “The more educated people vote for us, as they know how the CPP works and don’t get scared and intimidated,” says Keo Phirum.
Unwelcome in his homeland, Sam Rainsy toured North America last month to promote the CNRP. There are more than 250,000 Khmer living in the U.S. — mostly in California and Massachusetts — who have already contributed $420,000 toward this year’s campaign. Beyond the diaspora, the wider international community is also anxious about Hun Sen’s “increasingly dictatorial rule,” as Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, puts it. U.S. President Barack Obama visited Cambodia in November and used a meeting aides described as “tense” to press Hun Sen to release political prisoners, stop land seizures and hold free and fair elections. The Cambodia U.N. human-rights expert has also urged all sides to “play by the rules.”
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Unfortunately for the Cambodian opposition, there don’t seem to be any rules under the Prime Minister’s increasingly bizarre rule. Earlier this month, and before an astonished crowd of thousands, Hun Sen accused Kem Sokha, the acting opposition leader, of serious sexual misconduct involving a 15-year-old girl. The Prime Minister then implicated himself in helping Kem Sokha escape a police investigation. (Hun Sen provided no evidence and Kem Sokha has explicitly denied the allegations.) Later, Hun Sen threatened a defamation lawsuit against Kem Sokha for accusing him of electioneering “dirty tactics.” Cambodia’s constitution affords parliamentarians immunity from prosecution, but this can be removed by the majority party, and facilitated by a judiciary “pliant to the will of the CPP,” according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. The CPP can, therefore, prosecute opposition MPs for perceived slights, while reciprocal action is nigh impossible.
Such vitriol makes concentrating on policy extremely difficult. Cambodia’s economy has prospered in recent years — the World Bank had annual growth almost breaching double figures between 1998 and 2008, but slowing to a still healthy 7% in the global downturn that followed. However, Chinese and Vietnamese timber barons decimate protected forests through illegal land grabs for rubber and sugar plantations, abetted by a venal class of regime cronies. Since 2008, 2.6 million hectares — around 14% of Cambodia’s total landmass — has been transferred from small-scale farmers to agricultural companies, says U.K.-based campaign group Global Witness. Inequality is rife and widening, and there are growing calls for a higher minimum wage and better worker rights. Yet highlighting these issues is fraught with danger, with “activists for land rights, civil-society groups and the democratic opposition being cracked down upon,” says Karin Karlekar, director of the annual Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House. There can be no hope of that situation improving with Hun Sen in power, the opposition effectively neutered and the coming polls reduced to little more than a cynical joke.
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