Viewpoint: The Cambodian People Have Spoken, Time to Level the Playing Field

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Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, greets his supporters at Democracy Park during the general election campaign in Phnom Penh on July 26, 2013

As widely expected, Hun Sen has returned as Prime Minster of Cambodia, although describing the 60-year-old as head of a parliamentary democracy is much like saying Muammar Gaddafi was merely a colonel in the Libyan military. Hun Sen’s re-election means he will have spent 38 years leading the country, in one guise or another, by the time this new term finishes in 2018. However, dissatisfaction arising from inequality, corruption and ecological degradation led to his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to now boast a reduced 68 lawmakers within the 123-seat parliament, as opposed to 90 during the last term (current predictions are unofficial but likely to be accurate).

The slenderness of this majority has surprised many observers. Although 100,000 or so people greeted opposition leader Sam Rainsy with cheers of “Change!” upon his return from exile earlier this month — pardoned of charges of racial incitement and destruction of property he insists were politically motivated — few believed this would translate to the ballot box. Cambodia has generally slipped under the radar when one considers dictatorial regimes, yet it is one of the world’s more autocratic governments. “I have escaped assassination attempts, and they tried to put me in jail and exile,” Sam Rainsy tells TIME. “If you enter Cambodian politics you have to accept these things.”

(MORE: Back from Exile, Cambodia’s Opposition Leader Brings Thousands onto the Streets)

Cambodia is a contradiction. It has embraced liberal economic policies and bountiful trade — particularly the export of cheap apparel to Western high streets — and it draws hordes of enraptured tourists to its signature historic wonder: Angkor Wat. Yet the country is politically repressed. Hun Sen is a strongman of the extreme order, a former Khmer Rouge commander who used a bloody putsch to seize power after losing the 1993 election, and never made the mistake of giving people an unfettered choice again. Media manipulation, voting irregularities, vindictive prosecution and rampant cronyism entrench his regime. Campaign groups allege voter registration at the weekend exceeded 100% and that the ink used for ballot papers could be easily removed. Civil servants, village chiefs, the police, judiciary and even members of the National Election Committee are all handpicked by the CPP.

Despite this heavily stacked deck, the Khmer people have been riled by a widening wealth gap and made their feelings known by electing more opposition candidates than anticipated. The Asian Development Bank reports poverty in Cambodia dropped again last year, industry grew by 10% and tourist arrivals by a quarter, with “further robust growth” to come. At the same time, the country continues to lag strikingly behind its neighbors. GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing-power parity) stands at $2,000 — around level with Bangladesh and behind every member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bar Burma. Nearly 70% of the population subsists on less than $2 a day and 1 in 3 children under 5 is underweight.

(MORE: Cambodia Election Campaign Promises Little Change)

Land-ownership issues born from the “Year Zero” nihilism of Pol Pot’s agrarian dystopia are cruelly exploited today by elites driving blacked-out Range Rovers. Plots seized from impoverished communities are sold off to Vietnamese and Chinese timber barons who clear-cut valuable rosewood and install rubber, sugar and cassava plantations. Rural communities attempting to highlight these issues are simply cut down. More than 300 people have perished in politically motivated attacks in Cambodia since civil war ended in 1991, according to Human Rights Watch, but not a single person has been convicted.

Cambodia is hugely reliant on foreign aid that currently forms half the government’s budget — the U.S. alone has donated over $800 million since 1992. Concerns over electoral irregularities before the weekend ballot saw calls in U.S. Congress to freeze the $77 million slated for this year, and Sam Rainsy’s royal pardon was likely a direct consequence. When Hun Sen banned foreign-media broadcasts in the run-up to the poll — the only medium that disseminates opposition views — he performed a quick U-turn upon an international outcry. The means to exert telling pressure exists yet “international donors have turned a blind eye and continued to finance essential state services such as infrastructure, health care and education,” according to U.K.-based campaign group Global Witness.

Hun Sen by all accounts is not a well man — he is a heavy smoker — but one would be wrong to think his grip is weakening, despite his humbling at the ballot box. At least six sons of high-ranking CPP members stood for election last week. Hun Many, the youngest of Hun Sen’s three sons, is deputy Cabinet chief and is likely to have just gained a seat in the National Assembly. Hun Manet, another son and West Point graduate, is a major general in the military and widely perceived as heir apparent. Sam Rainsy challenged the official election result on Monday afternoon and called for an independent investigation involving the U.N. into “ghost” voters, incomplete registration lists and other alleged irregularities. Now is undoubtedly the time to ramp up the pressure on Hun Sen. Otherwise, all the princelings necessary to fashion a dynasty are ominously already in place.

MORE: A Tale of Two Factory Disasters: What Cambodia Can Teach Bangladesh