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Fairness of Elections Remains in Doubt, Analysts Say

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is expected to return to Cambodia on Friday, but he will so far not be allowed to run for office in the July 28 elections. Photo courtesy of Sam Rainsy.

WASHINGTON DC - Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is expected to return to Cambodia on Friday, but he will so far not be allowed to run for office in the July 28 elections.

Analysts say that could hurt the chances of the elections being declared free and fair, which could trigger greater pressure for a decrease in US aid to Cambodia.

Members of Congress who are especially critical of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen have said recently they want to push for a cut in US aid to Cambodia, especially if the upcoming elections are deemed not free and fair. What that might actually mean remains unclear, however.

“Pardoning Sam Rainsy and allowing him to return to Cambodia unmolested may take some of the pressure off of Hun Sen, but it will be difficult, at best, for Rainsy to participate in this election meaningfully, if at all,” said Zachary Dubel, a researcher at the Stimson Center, in Washington. “So the overall effect his return might have on the likelihood of aid being cut may be minimal at present.”

The last time the US government suspended aid to Cambodia was following the 1997 coup, when the Cambodian People’s Party overthrew a power-sharing arrangement with the royalist Funcinpec. Full aid did not resume until 2007.

“So it’s not an unprecedented action for the US to take,” Dubel said.

There is currently a resolution moving through the US Senate, sponsored by Republican Lindsay Graham, that would call on the US State Department and USAID to consider aid cuts if the July 28 elections are not deemed credible.

In a House of Representatives hearing on Cambodia last week, Republican Steve Chabot said he supported similar measures.

But it is unclear how serious the threat of an aid cut is, Dubel said.

“Sometimes it can be difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether or not Congress is posturing politically or if they truly intend to make good on a threat,” he said. “If the US government does cut aid to Cambodia, it will most likely only be government-to-government aid, and even then it may only be in the realm of military-related aid, as those are the only two that I've seen Rep. Chabot mention specifically. When it comes to military aid to Cambodia, this comprises a very small part of the total aid the US gives.”

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, told VOA Khmer that it is unlikely the US will actually cut aid to Cambodia, no matter the outcome of the elections.

“I do not believe aid will be cut,” he said. “Congressmen make personal threats like this all the time, but they don’t usually result in full congressional action. Besides, the CPP always does its work before the election, bribing and threatening voters to vote for Hun Sen. Then on Election Day, the vote looks clean.”