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Asia-Pacific

Cambodia opposition cries foul as ruling party takes all seats in election

media Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to garment workers in Phnom Penh on Wednesday AFP

Cambodia's National Election Committee has confirmed the ruling party's clean sweep of last month's election. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. But the main opposition party did not participate in the 29 July vote and is calling for sanctions on government officials to push for a new election.

The  CPP had no serious challengers: a court disbanded the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last year after a complaint filed by the government.

In the election the CNRP lost all of its seats, which included 55 of the then-123 seats in the National Assembly

Monovithya Kem of the CNRP says this is part of a long-term plan on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985:

“This is not something Hun Sen just decided to do a year ago,” she told RFI. “This is something he’s been doing little by little. He’s been setting up a stage for this for the years to come.”

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Hun Sen allowed some opposition for several years but last year the CNRP won about 44 percent of the popular vote in local elections, prompting the complaint that ended in its dissolution.

Sanctions considered

The United States called the election “flawed” both during the campaign and after the vote and said it would consider placing visa restrictions on some government officials.

The EU is considering economic sanctions.

Those moves have been welcomed by the opposition.

“The number one thing we’re calling for is targeted, individual sanctions, which means visa bans and asset freeze on Cambodian officials and their families,” says Monovithya Kem. “That has personal impact, therefore it would have personal incentive to reconsider their actions. If a lot of the countries do that alone, we would see results.”

But Mark Cogan, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University, in Osaka, Japan, says sanctions rarely work, in Cambodia in particular:

“[Cambodian officials] don’t have assets; these are not Russia oligarchs. So what’s the point?” he told RFI, adding that there was talk right after the election of limiting Cambodia’s access to European and US markets: “That would cause a 650 million-dollar hit. But it’s not going to hit the regime, it’s going to hit between 600,000 and one million Cambodians who work in the garment and textile industries.”

China links

Economic sanctions, he says, will only push Cambodia further into the arms of China, which has been developing infrastructure in Cambodia as part of its Belt and Road initiative.

Cogan says China is filling a void. Cambodia’s democracy previously depended on Western aid and development money, which is no longer flowing as it did before: “There is no Western pressure or Western hand guiding the development of the country. So China, the big neighbour, is going to dictate how Cambodia will develop in the next five to 10 years.”

But Japan held back from joining the criticism.

“Japan decided to keep a friendly relationship,” Cogan said, providing voting equipment and some financial support for the polls. “Why? Because they want to have the maintenance of that particular relationship if there is some kind of Cambodia backlash in regards to China.”

And some would say there is one simmering. The development of hydropower on the Mekong River is disrupting many people's livelihoods, which could lead to an eventual backlash.

The opposition sees pushback in the behaviour of people at the polls:

“Many of them did that by boycotting the election and by spoiling the ballots,” said Monovithya Kem. “I believe the people won’t just stand by, watching our country going to this big disaster. I believe sooner or later, the people of Cambodia will challenge the regime.”

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