Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday dismissed the European Union’s decision to pull support from the National Election Committee, saying that “liberal, multiparty democracy will not become the hostage of anyone”.
The EU’s decision came in response to the government’s crackdown on the Kingdom’s largest opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – which was summarily dissolved last month, a development that the EU said rendered credible elections impossible.
But in a speech to garment workers in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district yesterday, Hun Sen said the government had enough money to hold next year’s national elections without outside help and didn’t need the approval of foreign powers.
“The law and the Constitution of Cambodia do not require other countries’ presidents or the general secretary of the UN to sign off to call it a legal election,” Hun Sen said. “The people’s participation in the election is enough.”
However, opposition leaders and independent observers raised concerns that, in choosing such a path, Cambodia would be isolating itself.
Former CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang wrote in a Facebook post yesterday that the EU’s decision “is a sign informing the Hun Sen government that the EU, consisting of 27 countries, will not recognise the government created from the joke of the 2018 election”.
Yoeurng Sotheara, an election observer at Comfrel, said Hun Sen’s lack of concern about admonishment from the EU also threatens Cambodia’s ability to recruit development partners.
“In the region, we seem not to be a model country that should be followed,” Sotheara said. “The process of our election still has problems, so we need development partners and the partners’ help to reform.”
Regardless of international concerns, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday continued to defend the government’s crackdown on the opposition as legal, and said that “returning to the situation of the past and to seeing the opposition reborn is not possible”.
The government continues to point to the existence of minor parties besides the CNRP as evidence of continued multiparty democracy and the legitimacy of upcoming elections. But Kingsley Abbot, a legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, challenged these claims.
“It does not matter how many political parties remain in Cambodia,” Abbott said. “Elections that take place within an environment that so utterly fails to respect the rule of law and human rights, such as the one that exists in the country today, simply cannot and should not be treated as valid by the international community.”
But according to Cambodia expert Astrid Noren-Nilsson, such recognition “does not seem to be vital for Hun Sen”.
“To me, this speech gives further proof that Hun Sen is prepared to go ahead with elections that are not recognised by Western countries, since he is moving Cambodia into a new orbit defined by China in which Chinese and Russian recognition will suffice,” she said.
During his speech, Hun Sen also announced plans to extend benefits to local government representatives, including village chiefs and commune councillors, to match those received by garment workers.
The premier has made a bevy of populist promises to garment workers during a recent charm offensive, including free health check-ups, maternity bonuses and free public transportation.