Cambodia: Monarchy in question as Hun Sen sweeps to victory

Prime Minister Hun Sen has swept to a landslide victory in Cambodia’s local elections, gaining him international standing. The elections were disastrous for the Monarchists.

In the run-up to the general elections of 2003, Prime Minister Hun Sen tightens his grip of his country’s politics and earns for the first time the status of a popular leader, after years of being classified by the international community as using strong-arm tactics.

Hun Sen’s victory in the general election of 1996 after forcing a power-sharing scheme with the opposition under threat of secession, and the subsequent ousting of the leader of the Royalist Funcinpec Party, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the following year, raised eyebrows among the international community. The reasons for this were that he came to power in the 1980s, leading a Communist government installed by Hanoi.

However, with the population behind him, his image can now change. Hun Sen had been beset with a civil war against the Khmer Rouge, which was finally ended in 1996. In the words of a European diplomat, “Three years of peace after 30 years of fighting is not a long time. Cambodians at the ground level probably value not being shot at any more”.

To broker peace, Hun Sen decided not to try any of the Khmer Rouge leaders, blamed for the death of 1.7 million people, despite the opposition of the USA. The country stabilised, Hun Sen can now proceed with reforms and a liberalisation of the economy, which is waiting for foreign investment.

A populist and popular leader, Hun Sen’s power base comes from the peasants in the countryside, where he has his roots. He can often be seen wading thing-deep in flood waters, working alongside the peasants to help stranded villages. Having lost a bet on a football match in the 1998 World Soccer Cup, he pulled out a pistol and blasted his t.v. set. Ordinary Cambodians can identify with this rough image, closer to them than the elitist royalists.

The abominable performance by the Royalists in these local elections plunged the Funcinpec Party into crisis and raised questions about the continuation of the Monarchic cause in Cambodia. This party won seven of the 1,621 village communes in Sunday’s election. These were the first local elections since King Norodom Sihanouk gained independence from France in 1953.

Lao Mong Hay, Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, claimed that “The future of our monarchy is not very bright after this commune election and the poor performance of Funcinpec. I don’t know whether it can survive our king”, referring to the aging King Norodom Sihanouk.


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