As Cambodia heads toward national elections on July 23, the central question seems to be whether they matter, and if so how, given that the results – at least in terms of the winner – are preordained. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has taken its long-standing domination of the political scene to new heights, and into the future, both repressing the resurrected opposition Candlelight Party and dramatically increasing in popularity over the past electoral term.
Elections perform functions beyond simply designating a winner, however, and in authoritarian contexts these are numerous. Complicating the picture is the ambiguous nature of Cambodia’s upcoming election, which differs from previous polls. From 1993 to 2013, electoral competition was skewed but real, and carried a democratic promise in the eyes of the population. That changed with the dissolution in 2017 of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the following 2018 elections, a one-horse race in which the act of voting became a symbol of loyalty to the CPP and which produced a one-party parliament.
July’s elections may either perpetuate the CPP’s sole representation in parliament or result in the reestablishment of a parliamentary opposition. Either way, the new pattern of rule put in place from 2017-18 onwards, in which there is no real competition, will be solidified. The latter scenario would open up a gray zone: Even if a parliamentary opposition is reestablished, it will likely not be able to function as a counterweight to the CPP.
The main way in which July’s election matters is in how it will provide a vehicle for a leadership succession within the ruling party. The election will formally mark a generational transition of first- to second-generation CPP leaders, enabling the handover of power to the scions of the current government and sanctifying it with a popular vote. This is a momentous event after four decades of stable rule by the first generation CPP leaders, who were ensconced in power in January 1979, after helping the Vietnamese overthrow the murderous Khmer Rouge government.
A transition has been in the works for more than a decade, and many of the newer generation leaders already hold positions in government. However, July’s election promises a near-complete changing of the guard. The electorally transcribed transition is portentous not only for bringing four decades of rule under one set of leaders to an end. It will also likely inaugurate a long-lasting new era under the rule of their scions, conceivably for decades to come.