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Cambodian Strongman Claims Victory in Election Widely Criticized as a Farce

29 Jul 2018 1:47 pm
By James Hookway 

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- After locking up his chief rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed another five years as Cambodia's Lord Prince and Supreme Defender, as he likes to style himself.

Sunday's election was widely derided as a farce exposing the lurch toward authoritarianism taking root in many smaller countries around Asia and Africa.

China notably stepped in with $20 million to pay for voting booths and other polling equipment when the U.S. and European Union pulled out in protest at last year's arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha

A smattering of far-right parties ranging from Britain's U.K. Independence Party to groups from Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy served as election observers to make sure voting was done properly.

Mr. Hun Sen's critics instead focused their energy on convincing Cambodians to stay away from the polls rather than vote for 19 smaller opposition parties on the ballot, few of which existed until a few months earlier.

But as vote counting continued, Mr. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge defector who was installed as premier by Vietnamese forces 33 years ago, claimed victory in a post on his Facebook page.

"Compatriots have chosen the democratic path and used their rights," he said.

Election officials said the voter turnout was 82%, higher than the last national elections in 2013, but this was being taken as a sign of intimidation in some quarters.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch said the practice of dipping voters' index fingers in indelible ink -- a practice initially introduced to prevent people voting twice -- had evolved into a way of determining who had heeded Mr. Hun Sen's call to come out and vote.

Still, there are growing questions over the 65-year-old strongman's durability.

Mr. Hun Sen's main claim to power has long been his pledge to prevent Cambodia falling back into the chaos of the Khmer Rouge years. Many Cambodians happily support him. The country is now one of the world's fastest-growing economies, growing at 7%-plus over the past several years.

"The prime minister has done what he has said he would do," said Sok Heang, a 52-year-old teacher, as he left a polling station in one of Phnom Penh's back streets.

But Mr. Hun Sen's appeal is strongest with those who remember the horrors of Pol Pot's killing fields. Lao Mong Hay, a political commentator, notes that two-thirds of the country's 16 million people are under 30 and are more interested in day-to-day issues such as corruption. In recent years they increasingly turned to Mr. Sokha's now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, which won 44% of the in last years' local elections.

People familiar with Mr. Hun Sen's thinking say he is acutely aware of the longer-term threat the changing demographics pose.

His main concern, one said, is meeting the same fate as former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was toppled in a popular revolt and died while on trial for human rights abuses at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

To strengthen his hand and keep the economy growing, Mr. Hun Sen strengthened Cambodia's ties to China after Mr. Sokha was arrested on treason charges he disputes and his party outlawed. Beijing is by far the country's biggest aid donor and investor, spending billions here over the past decade. Toward the end of the election campaign, China said it would provide a further $259 million in loans to pay for a ring road around Phnom Penh.

But getting too close to China poses risks of its own.

In the seaside town of Sihanoukville, a favorite destination for Chinese tourists and investors, the local governor recently wrote a letter to the national government complaining that organized crime groups from China had entered the area, while Chinese-built hotels, casinos and apartment complexes have displaced local Cambodian businesses.

"He will be seen as the one who opened the door," Mr. Lao Mong Hay warned.

Some diplomats privately say that now the election is out of the way, Mr. Hun Sen may ease political restrictions to repair Cambodia's relationship with the West, which helped establish democracy here a quarter-century ago after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and years of civil war.

Among other things the European Union is threatening to remove Cambodia's tariff-and-quota free access for its $7 billion-a-year garments business, its largest industry.

Kingsley Abbott, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, warns that the country has fundamentally changed in the past year, however.

He notes that Mr. Hun Sen's government changed the law last year to allow the Supreme Court to dissolve Mr. Sokha's party -- and distribute its parliamentary and council seats to his own Cambodian People's Party.

The pendulum might swing back a little, Mr. Abbott says, but not all the way.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 29, 2018 09:47 ET (13:47 GMT)

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