There is a compelling case to be made that over the last several years, we have witnessed the front end of an “ASEAN spring.” Citizens and voters across Southeast Asia have told their governments about their new and rising expectations for empowerment,governance, and rule of law.
Indonesia’s transformation from an autocratic regime under Suharto to a dynamic democracy today is the starkest example. But voters from Thailand to Malaysia, Singapore to Vietnam, and beyond have challenged their governments to either improve delivery of services and allow for greater participation, or see their mandates diminished and new competitors established.
Only a handful of ASEAN countries are bucking that trend, and at the top of the list is Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since seizing power in a 1997 coup, is poised to win his fourth consecutive term as prime minister when Cambodians go to the polls on July 28. While his victory is assured, a bright economic and political future for Cambodia is less certain.
Unlike other Southeast Asian countries that are opening political systems created during the Cold War and investing in developing institutions by moving toward increasingly responsive and transparent regimes, Cambodia has not responded to similar signals. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have not demonstrated that they will tolerate real political competition. Instead, there are signs that politically related violence, corruption, and nepotism are characterizing the run up to national elections. These trends suggest that Cambodia is not moving forward with its ASEAN partners and instead is home to a political instability that should concern its neighbors and ASEAN colleagues, including the United States.
Earlier this month, the CPP stripped all 27 opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary status, rendering them ineligible to run in next month’s elections. The move is sadly consistent with other steps by Hun Sen and the CPP to undercut political rivals and thereby stunt the growth of a maturing political system in Cambodia.
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