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.

Chor Sokunthea/Reuters
Five more years: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who voted Sunday, had predicted his party would win.

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.

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.

Many in Cambodia would seem to agree with him, as evidenced by a poll released in May by the US-based International Republican Institute: 77 percent of Cambodians surveyed said they thought their country was on the right course under Sen's leadership.

"If you look at the capacity of people in understanding the social contract, it's very limited. What they do see is performance," he adds, citing that the majority of Cambodia's 14 million people are poor farmers, who need better roads, wells, and other infrastructure.

A different form of democracy?

There is another camp, however, which vociferously disagrees, saying stability alone cannot be a substitute for democracy and that there cannot be one model of democracy for the developing world and another for the West.

"Democracy anywhere, in Europe, in North America, in Asia, must be the same. This is a universal principle," says Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, based in Phnom Penh.

She charges that the ruling party has furnished only the mirage of economic stability, while practically unleashing political and social cleavages that endanger the state.

The CPP has systematically bought off or silenced the opposition, she says, while poor people are being evicted from their land at an alarming rate, to forcibly clear the way for development projects that ultimately benefit the ruling elite.

"[Stability] is only a facade. You have a GDP increase, but look at the gap between rich and poor. More than 40 percent live below the standard of income," Ms. Galabro says. "We have very few in the middle class."

But if there is one point on which both sides of the debate agree, it is that Cambodia has gotten much better at elections, thanks to more than a decade of voter education programs, the presence of international observers, and better media to inform people of their rights.

The payoff was evident at a polling station in Tropeang Tom, where some 700 people cast their votes. In a steady stream beginning at 7 a.m., voters came on bicycle, car, and motorbike. Some walked. All left with an ink-stained index finger, the instrument of their democratic dispensation, then traversed muddy fields to return to work. The whole exercise took each person no more than 10 minutes.

Fractures weaken opposition

At this point in the counting, most of those inked fingers look to have chosen the CPP for another five years.

The main opposition Sam Rainsy Party came in second with 21 percent of the vote, election officials reported, and three other minority parties split the rest.

The four groups rejected the outcome, and accused the CPP of manipulating voter rolls to ensure their victory. "We call on the international community not to recognize the results because there were a lot of irregularities," said Kem Sokha, leader of the Human Rights Party and a longtime critic of the government.

Many observers say the opposition has only itself to blame. Internal conflicts have rendered the opposition weak in the eyes of the public.

Instead of banding together to confront Sen, they have squabbled and missed opportunities, some analysts say. So voters have chosen the stronger party.

"Why didn't they all [work] with each other when it was important? Voters have sent a very clear message to the opposition. You are divided; you lose votes," says Sopheak Ok Serei, a political analyst in Phnom Pehn.

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