Cambodia’s Democratic Transition Has Collapsed, With Dangerous Consequences

Cambodia’s Democratic Transition Has Collapsed, With Dangerous Consequences
The funeral procession of slain Cambodian government critic Kem Ley, Kandal, west of Phnom Penh, July 24, 2016 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).

As Cambodia prepares for national elections in two years, its politics have veered dangerously out of control. Even though young Cambodians are demanding political alternatives and accessing more information outside of state media, the country’s transition toward two-party politics has collapsed. The government’s brutal tactics of the 1990s and early 2000s, when political activists were routinely murdered and opposition parties nearly put out of business, have returned. Young Cambodians may be left with no outlet for their grievances, creating a potentially explosive situation, especially given the promise of reform and dialogue just a few years ago.

In 2013, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), an alliance of opposition groups, came together in time for general elections and nearly defeated the Cambodian People’s Party, whose dominance stretches back to the end of the Khmer Rouge era in 1979. Cambodia seemed poised for a transition to a freer, more democratic system. What went wrong?

Three years ago, the CPP’s leader, longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen—the longest-serving non-royal ruler in East Asia—appeared to have miscalculated the depth of younger Cambodians’ dislike for him, and the level of support for the CNRP. Although it lacked the grassroots organization of the CPP, the dominance of Cambodian media, and the ability to twist arms and control institutions like village chiefs, the election commission and judges, the CNRP nearly won enough seats to take control of parliament. Some Cambodian political analysts even believe the opposition would have won the election if not for electoral fraud. Cambodians under 35 years old, who have no actual memory of the Khmer Rouge era—and thus were less willing to support Hun Sen simply because he provides a kind of rough stability after decades of civil war—voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.

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