As Cambodians prepare to go to the polls on Sunday, a win is all but assured for Prime Minister Hun Sen in an election that highlights China’s growing influence in Asia over the West.
After a narrow election victory in 2013 over opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his Cambodia National Rescue Party, Hun Sen — who’s been in power for 33 years — has since disbanded the party, silenced his critics and forced the closing of most independent media.
In that time he’s grown closer to China, accepting money from Beijing in return for supporting its geopolitical aims in the region –– particularly regarding disputed territory in the South China Sea. When the U.S. and European Union pulled funding for the election, China stepped in with $20 million for equipment, including voting booths, laptops and computers.
As a staunch supporter of Hun Sen’s regime, Beijing has billions of dollars at stake. This month, U.S. security-research firm FireEye said it found evidence of a Chinese hacking team infiltrating computer systems belonging to Cambodia’s election commission, opposition leaders and the media.
Still, the U.S. and EU have some leverage left: low tariffs for Cambodia’s garment industry, the largest employer in the country. The EU is reviewing those benefits, citing the current political climate.
“Now, the biggest destination of export from Cambodia are the EU and U.S,” said Hiroshi Suzuki, chief economist at the Business Research Institute for Cambodia. If the EU were to pull out of its trade incentive schemes “the effect to Cambodian economy, especially the garment sector, could be serious.”
International observers and institutions including the United Nations have questioned the state of democracy in Cambodia and declared the elections “not genuine.” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called it “a farce and a mockery of democracy by a prime minister keen to ratify his seizure of absolute power with a rubber stamp election.”
Despite the lack of opposition, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have campaigned hard. On Friday, they entertained tens of thousands of supporters waving flags and chanting as they rode on trucks into Phnom Penh for the mass rally.
© 2018 Bloomberg News
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