In Cambodia vote, stability wins
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for 23 years, won another five-year term Sunday. His party has overseen several prosperous years; critics say it stifles democracy.
Election official Ven Serey Sophon has participated in six elections in Cambodia, and none more peaceful than this one. "I think it's better [this year]. The people have experience in Cambodia about elections," says Mr. Sophon.Skip to next paragraph
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If the day was peaceful, it was also predictable, with the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) clinching 73 percent of all votes, according to electoral authorities. Some 10,000 international observers reported few irregularities, and voter turnout was high, at 75 percent.
It is an achievement that confounds some analysts: Cambodia's elections, first instituted in 1993, have grown more peaceful over the years. But they have also served to bolster the 23-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is considered a fulcrum of economic stability but an obstacle to the full flowering of democracy, including political dissent and freedom of expression.
Critics accuse him of using harassment, payoffs, and violence as a tool to silence the opposition – accusations the ruling party denies. And yet, Cambodia has never been more stable or more prosperous.
Sunday's elections epitomize a debate grappled with across much of the developing world: After decades of war and civil strife, is stability more important than a thriving democracy?
"Democracy here in Asia – you don't care about the content of democracy. You care about economic performance first. This is different than liberal democracy in the West. If people [here] can eat first, then they think about democracy," says Sedera Kim, an independent political analyst in Phnom Penh, the capital.
Overseeing economic growth
If Cambodia has come a long way since the 1970s, when nearly 2 million people died under the oppressive rule of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Sen is largely to thank.
Since defecting from the Khmer Rouge and taking power in 1977, he has steered a course of controlled growth and democratic reform, albeit often tightfistedly.
Still, Cambodia is best known today for its prized religious temples and unspoiled beaches, which drew a record 2 million tourists last year. The country experienced average economic growth of 10 percent a year during Sen's last five-year term, among the stablest in the country's history.
In recent days, the CPP's popularity has also soared from nationalistic pride, thanks to an escalating border dispute that erupted with Thailand two weeks ago.
Cambodia had been lobbying the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate Preah Vihear, an ancient temple complex, as a World Heritage Site, even though Thailand claims that the site sits on its territory. When UNESCO granted the site World Heritage status, the Thai government sent hundreds of troops to the border, prompting Cambodia's ruling CPP to do the same. The maneuver has won Sen points for standing up to its richer, more powerful neighbor.
Because the CPP is riding an economic boom and the nationalistic spike, its victory is neither a surprise nor a disappointment for analysts like Mr. Kim, who says stability is what Cambodia needs right now.