Stability, sort of

August 1, 2008 at 1:55 am Leave a comment

Jul 31st 2008 | PHNOM PENH
From The Economist print edition

After a dirty election, the prime minister tightens his grip

WHETHER Cambodia’s general election on July 27th was a success or a travesty depends on what you compare it with. A team of European Union observers said it fell well below international democratic standards. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters were excluded from the electoral register. There was widespread impersonation of voters, plus the usual vote-buying and glaring pro-government bias by broadcasters.

However, the election was also the least violent since the United Nations-sponsored one in 1993 that marked the end of decades of civil war. The victory of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its leader, Hun Sen, means Cambodia is set for a further five years of corrupt and inept government but also, probably, of continued stability and rising prosperity.

Preliminary results suggest the CPP won around 90 seats (up from 73) in the 123-seat national assembly. The main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, believes his party won around 27, up from 24 last time. The big losers were Cambodia’s once-powerful royalists. Divided and in disarray, the main royalist party, Funcinpec, shrank from 26 to perhaps just two seats; a splinter named after the exiled Prince Norodom Ranariddh did no better.

Though the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) wants the world to refuse to recognise the outcome, diplomats in Phnom Penh, the capital, believe the CPP has genuinely gained popularity thanks to Cambodia’s strong growth—10.3% last year, producing a boom in fancy office blocks and rural land prices. Mr Hun Sen also won some votes from his tough stance in an armed confrontation with Thailand over a patch of land near the ancient Preah Vihear temple, which a UN committee recently put on its “world heritage” list. The EU’s observers said that given the scale of the ruling party’s victory electoral fiddles seemed unlikely to have altered the outcome. 

Until fairly recently Mr Hun Sen’s critics had a tendency to die violent deaths. As he has felt surer of his position, politics has become more peaceful. Patronage and pilfering are rife and the justice system almost non-existent. But foreign donors fill many of the gaps—in particular, building lots of roads and other infrastructure. Roderick Brazier of the Asia Foundation, a think-tank, says the devolution of money and powers to local communes seems to be improving ordinary people’s lives, and the appearance of a few capable technocrats in central government may help more.

Tired and angry after the election, Mr Sam Rainsy remains defiant. The collapse of the royalist movement, he says, means that now, “we are the only serious alternative. It makes the political game clearer.” He argues that the SRP, hitherto an urban party, is gaining support in the countryside. But if he were to present a serious challenge, would Mr Hun Sen revert to his old brutal ways?

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