With the situation in Cambodia reaching a critical point, the international community in general, and the West in particular, can exert a stronger influence than most people may think.
The key word is legitimacy. Many authoritarian regimes crave and scramble it. Like in Cambodia, they try to build a facade of democracy in order to secure global recognition and respectability. Legitimacy for the current Cambodian regime allows the powerful here to abuse their power in the conduct of their lucrative businesses often associated with the plunder of our country’s riches. But the crumbling of the regime’s democratic facade could end its legitimacy and could jeopardise Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family’s business interests as recently exposed by Global Witness.
Only the prospect of “delegitimisation” can push Hun Sen to reverse his authoritarian drift and to show more respect for democratic rules and principles. Cambodia is too small a country – depending too heavily on international assistance, trade privileges, debt forgiveness, new loans, foreign direct investment and access to export markets in Western countries – to be willing to risk any form of international isolation associated with “delegitimisation”.
The ongoing political repression is definitely not conducive to acceptably free and fair – meaning legitimate – elections in 2017 and 2018. Any illegitixmate elections can only produce an illegitimate government, which would be a dangerous and unprecedented development since the UN-organised elections and the formation of the first royal Cambodian government in 1993.
The repression is all the more obvious in Cambodia’s presently new political landscape: For the first time ever there is a united democratic opposition represented by the CNRP, the only opposition party to hold seats at the National Assembly where it stands nearly neck-to-neck with the ruling CPP.
In this context, and because Cambodia is supposed to follow a British-style parliamentary democracy (or Westminster) system, any elections without the participation of the opposition leader or his deputy – both Kem Sokha and myself being unfairly discarded from the election process for obvious political reasons – would look really odd and unacceptable.
Because they are the recognised bearer and defender of universal values such as democracy and human rights, the West is in the unique position to assess and question the legitimacy of unpopular regimes sometimes called “pariah states” in the worst cases. This ability to deny, confer or condition legitimacy is part of that “soft power” whose might can be greater than the power of the gun or the power of money.