Cambodia Reelects Longtime Leader

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Chor Sokunthea / Reuters

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen votes outside Phnom Penh during the national election on July 27

Bon Tona believes in the ideals of a more democratic Cambodia, but for now, he'll settle for a good road.

Taking a break under a tree in Phnom Penh the day after Cambodia's July 27 national elections, the 46-year-old tire repairman said he voted for infrastructure when he cast his ballot in favor of Prime Minister Hun Sen's winning Cambodia People's Party. "In my district, we now have roads, a pond and a reservoir. These are the CPP's achievements," said Bon Tona. Though the opposition promised to combat the country's endemic corruption, promote greater government accountability, respect for human rights and end of land grabbing by the rich and powerful, Bon Tona said he believed more in asphalt than lofty promises. "If we have good roads, democracy will travel along those road. Roads and democracy go well together — but roads first."

Having ruled Cambodia for over two decades, Hun Sen is now set to start another five-year term after landing an estimated 90 of the 123 National Assembly seats up for grabs in this week's election, a sturdy jump on the 73 his party won in the last election in 2003. Buoyed by several years of strong economic growth and — most importantly for this post-war nation, stability — Hun Sen's mix of rural development, political jockeying, and his iron grip on all facets of the country's administration helped him soundly defeat his rivals. Regional geopolitics also helped. In the last week of the election campaign, the possibility of war with Cambodia's historic foe, Thailand, over disputed border territory, spurred a widespread feeling that Cambodia could only be safe in the hands of its long-time "strongman," as the leader refers to himself. The question for many now is whether Hun Sen, who now has the opportunity to rule alone since the country's first democratic elections in 1993, can turn his latest victory into real reform and take the necessary steps to pull his people out of poverty.

A bout of soul searching is also due for the longstanding main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which, after a strong showing in the 2003 national election, only managed an increase of two seats, to 26, on July 27. Three smaller parties took a combined total of seven seats, though official results will not be released for at least another week. The day following the election, the Sam Rainsy Party and the three other parties held a joint news conference to announce their rejection of the preliminary results of the election, which they claimed was "rigged" by the CPP.

While it was largely free of the violence of previous election years, this week's vote was not without controversy. On July 11, an opposition-party-aligned journalist and his son were gunned down on a Phnom Penh street, and independent monitors reported problems with voter registration that prevented a significant number of people from voting. The CPP's domination of the broadcast media, particularly the country's television stations, also left a gaping hole in coverage of non-CPP parties, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. "We can say the process did not reach the fully 'free and fair' as experienced in the West. But in the Cambodian context... the process improved," he said.

In the end, this week's election was less about whether Hun Sen would win — a CPP victory was always a given — but about how big that win would be, what gains opposition leader Sam Rainsy might make at the ballot box, and what this would mean for the balance of power in Cambodia. And the results suggest suggest that balance has tipped in the CPP's favor more than than ever before. Though he did not vote for the CPP, Dara, a small business owner in Phnom Penh, said the ruling party's win was a result that even he could live with for now. The electorate's decision, he said, reflected Cambodia's yearning for stability. "If [the CPP] were not elected, then there could have been problems," said Dara, who would only give his first name. "I want a simple life, with no conflict."