A longtime observer of Cambodian politics has said that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen is “prepared to do whatever necessary” to hold on to power at the general election in 2018.
“Of course, they would prefer to win fairly; that looks better internationally. But I think the CPP is prepared to do whatever necessary to hold on to power,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, during an interview last week at an event organized by the Stimson Center in the aftermath of local elections earlier this month that saw the opposition gain ground against the longtime incumbent.
“They have all the tools that they need to ensure that they hold on to power in the next elections,” he added.
Strangio, a former reporter at the Phnom Penh Post, said the CPP felt threatened by increasing support for the opposition.
“The CPP has made it clear that it sees politics as a zero sum game,” he said. “Or the CPP’s continuation of power as congruence with the nation’s continued stability and prosperity and the opposition’s takeover would be tantamount to a return to instability and conflict and civil war.”
“So, I think they are ready to do whatever they need to do to maintain their hold on power,” he added.
In the months leading up to the June 4 commune elections, Hun Sen issued warnings of a return to civil war if the opposition came to power.
Elizabeth Becker, a journalist and author of “When the War Was Over”, said the recent elections, in which the opposition increased the number of local councils under its control ten-fold, were a positive sign for the future.
“It sets the stage for an equally strong competition in the national election next year, which is why everybody has been watching it so carefully,” she said.
Courtney Weatherby, a researcher at the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, said the CPP was becoming more cautious about issues that could damage its support base, such as environmental degradation and corruption.
“At the same time, we also saw some shifts in the Cambodian People’s Party in the way they are identifying themselves on this issue. After the 2013 election, with those losses, Hun Sen directly appointed Say Sam Al to the Ministry of Environment,” Weatherby said.
Meas Ny, a researcher, told VOA Khmer that political tensions would likely grow ahead of the vote next year.
“When the CNRP sees such a strong increase in their support, I expect there will be storms, not just any storm, but thunder and lightening.”
However, Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, denied that the CPP would exert pressure against opposing forces ahead of the election.
“Any political party strives to win by all means,” he said. “The CPP also strives using all means, but those are not illegal,” he said.
Eysan said the prime minister only meant to provide an “explanation” of what could happen if the CPP lost the election. “This explanation was not a threat against the opposition,” he said.
Strangio said that the international community would be watching the Cambodian election closely for evidence of foul play.
“The U.S. is obviously going to scrutinize the process next year as it did with the commune elections,” he said. “And it will condemn any undemocratic behavior by either party.”