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After a decade of systematically banning, exiling, imprisoning, and assassinating the opposition, Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party swept the 2023 general election without public protest. It was a half-hearted charade, with the Prime Minister announcing before the first vote had been cast that his son, Hun Manet, commander of the armed forces, would take over as leader in the coming weeks by 22 August.
The day before the election, thousands of cars, motorbikes, and trucks emblazoned with the insignia of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) rolled through the streets, ferrying party members who screeched political slogans over megaphones or waved photos of Hun father and son side by side – less a political rally than a message that Cambodia’s long-ailing democracy was dead, and an autocratic dynasty installed in its place.
By the time the polls opened, the mood was apathetic. One former government employee showed us a Telegram channel where voters share photos of their spoiled ballots. “I’ll probably just draw a cock or something,” he shrugs. By the end of the day, at least one member of that group was in jail, Hun Sen had threatened to arrest other ballot-spoilers, and the CPP had declared its landslide win.
“The Cambodian election was nothing but a ruse to try and fool gullible members of the international community to believe that somehow the country is a ‘democracy,’” says Asia’s Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson.
Cambodia is joining a growing club. Many countries that call themselves democracies are backsliding into autocracy and oligarchy, going through the motions of holding elections in systems rigged to preserve the power of ruling parties and elites.
In Thailand, under the control of the military since the 2014 coup, self-appointed Prime Minister General Chan-ocha made an elaborate show of holding multi-party elections in May, before forcing the most popular party out of subsequent negotiations. Myanmar’s democratically elected government has been in exile since the junta marched on the capital in 2020, triggering a brutal civil war.
Meanwhile, Western democracies that were once framed as models to aspire to are fraying at the seams. In the US, Trump faces a slew of charges over his role in the storming of the capitol and refusal to accept Biden’s win. Crackdowns on human rights in Hungary under Viktor Orbán and state-sponsored violence against protesters in France, embolden emerging dictators around the world.
Political chaos in the UK, which in 2022 changed prime ministers three times in as many months without holding a national election, has also attracted ridicule. As one Cambodian tuk-tuk driver joked, when Hun Manet takes over, Cambodia will still have had fewer unelected leaders in 30 years than the UK had in the past one.
This marks a major turning point in a 30-year trend that saw global democracy on the rise.
At the close of the Cold War, US foreign policy shifted from a focus on arms and proxy wars to promoting democracy abroad. From 1989 to 1993, U.S. foreign aid spent on democracy development increased from around $100 million to $900 million. The end of apartheid in South Africa gave way to the country’s first democratically elected government in 1994, triggering an Africa-wide surge in democratization on a continent that, at the time, counted only Botswana, the Gambia and Mauritius as democratic nations. The same year, Ukraine became the first former Soviet state to transition into a full democracy, with most of the fourteen remaining Soviet aligned countries following suit.
Southeast Asia was slower to join the trend. Myanmar’s military junta ignored the results of its first election in 1990 and Indonesia did not introduce free and fair elections until 1999. Brunei is one of the world’s last remaining full monarchies, and both Vietnam and Laos are still officially Communist, governed as one-party states.
Cambodia was among the first countries in the region to attempt democracy, with Hun Sen at the forefront of the project. This is despite his prior role as a commander in the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for the deaths of up to 3 million people, claims by some human rights groups that he played a significant part in the genocide of ethnic Cham Muslims, and his defection to Vietnam, whose forces he helped invade Cambodia in 1978.
Initially appointed the world’s youngest Foreign Minister by the Vietnamese, Hun Sen progressed to Prime Minister, and played a pivotal role in negotiating the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that brought an end to the war, laying hopes for genuine democracy in Cambodia. He then welcomed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to the country to oversee the peaceful transition of power, as well as Cambodia’s first democratic elections in 1993.
But you don’t get to be the world’s longest standing prime minister by letting voters get in the way of your interests. Hun Sen lost the very first election to the royalist Funcinpec Party, but managed to negotiate a joint Prime Minister position for himself before enacting a coup in 1997 that consolidated his full control.
From then until 2013, as the country relied heavily on Western aid to cover basic services, it looked like Cambodia was moving towards democratic norms and media freedom – at least, while the CPP continued to win.
In 2013, Hun Sen was blindsided by a huge swing of support to the rival Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). For decades he had sailed by on the narrative that he personally had saved Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime and was the only person capable of maintaining peace, even as his family amassed staggering, often unexplainable wealth, and handed out huge land concessions to political allies with a history of brutal human rights abuses. But voters, it seemed, were ready for change. After a hotly contested election riddled with irregularities, the CPP declared themselves victorious before backing down to an eruption of protests and civil unrest and agreeing to some power-sharing arrangements with the CNRP.
These were short-lived. In 2017, Hun Sen flat-out banned the opposition party In 2017. Some leaders were arrested and others fled the country. Most independent media sources were shut down or sold to friendly buyers that would transform these into pro-government outlets. Without any real opposition, the CPP won an essentially uncontested election. Five years later it repeated the playbook, barring new rival Candlelight Party from participating just months before the election, and shuttering one of the last independent news outlets, Voice of Democracy.
“Given the effective destruction of multi-party democracy in Cambodia, this entire ‘election’ exercise is starting to look like the kind of ‘election’ that one would see in single party dictatorships like Vietnam or North Korea, says Robertson. “In all this, the voices of the Cambodian people are lost in an environment of rights abuses, control, and censorship that is now dominating Cambodia’s political situation.”
As in many other countries, this outright abandonment of democracy would not have been possible if Hun Sen had not found a new financial backer at exactly the right time. While the US, the EU and Australia all pulled aid or cancelled lucrative trade deals in protest, China made up the shortfall by pouring money into Cambodia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an enormous infrastructure project that seeks to rebuild and expand ancient trade links and put China at the heart of the global economy.
Since the BRI launched in 2013, China has funneled billions of dollars into partner countries, including many of the world’s most fragile and corrupt states. Most of this money is made up of relatively high-interest loans rather than aid, and stipulates that Chinese companies will get the lucrative construction contracts, while the Chinese government can often take control of the finished infrastructure if the host government can’t pay them back.
Despite this, the scheme is highly attractive to leaders with autocratic leanings. The BRI’s supposedly “no strings attached” policy means Beijing doesn’t weigh in on recipient countries’ democratic credentials or human rights record, although it seems allies are expected to voice support for China on sensitive issues like control of the South China Sea, self-rule in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and crackdowns on the Uyghur minority.
The result is that tyrants like Hun Sen no longer fear reprisals from Western backers, including sanctions or cuts to foreign aid, for perpetuating human rights abuses, holding sham elections, or even setting up their own Kim-style dynastic regime.
As China pours money into autocracies desperate to punish the US and the EU for their perceived meddling and Russia’s Wagner militants fuel a string of coups throughout Africa, Western nations will likely choose to ignore abuses by their remaining allies to hold onto what influence they have left. Global democracy is in crisis, with its future looking bleaker than at any time since the Cold War.