Malaysia and Cambodia widen the democracy-dictatorship divide – Nikkei Asian Review

Mahathir Mohamad giving a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on the night of May 9, when he requested that officials release the final election results (Simon Roughneen)

With 2018 elections, neighbours tug ASEAN in opposing political directions

JAKARTA — In contrast to Malaysia’s electoral earthquake in May, which resulted in the first opposition win since independence, last Sunday’s elections in Cambodia produced a predictable landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985.

His Cambodian People’s Party claims to have won all 125 seats available, prompting Mu Sochea, an exiled opposition leader, to tell media in Jakarta that election day “marked the death of democracy in Cambodia.”

The view from Malaysia: “Millions of Cambodians were denied a genuine choice, as the CPP’s victory was guaranteed even before the first ballot was cast,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Democratic Action Party, which is now part of the new Mahathir Mohamad-led governing coalition, in a statement released on Monday.

For the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the contrast between Malaysia and Cambodia reflects the region’s wide array of political systems.  ASEAN is made up of a mix of electoral democracies such as Indonesia and the Philippines, single-party states in Laos and Vietnam and a military dictatorship in Thailand.

“Indonesia is a democratic country, Malaysia and Myanmar are going more into a democratic direction, so what happened in Cambodia might not be a trend in the region,” said Djayadi Hanan, lecturer in politics at Jakarta’s Paramadina University.

But with an increasingly powerful and authoritarian China expanding its influence region-wide — not least in Cambodia, seen by many as a Chinese client state — the Hun Sen blueprint could catch on.

“As U.S. influence in the region slowly wanes, China’s will only increase,” said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia research at U.K.-based consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “We expect that Sunday’s election was closely watched by other countries in the region, particularly Thailand. The absence of any repercussions will plausibly embolden the military junta to yet again delay the next general election, currently scheduled for 2019.”

Malaysia and Cambodia share the same five-year electoral cycle, going to the polls in 2013 and this year. In 2013, the opposition parties in both countries came close to unseating incumbents that had ruled for decades. The now-banned Cambodian National Rescue Party won just under 45% of the vote, while Malaysia’s opposition, then led by Anwar Ibrahim, won the popular vote but lost the election due to a system that gives disproportionate weight to small rural constituencies.

Crowds watch vote-counting in Cambodia’s June 2017 municipal elections taking place outside a row of polling stations on Phnom Penh’s riverside (Simon Roughneen)

In the intervening years, both governments tried to suppress rivals. Anwar was jailed in 2015 on sodomy charges, leaving the opposition rudderless and on the verge of disintegration. That was before Mahathir — prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and a longtime eminence grise of a Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that had ruled uninterrupted since 1957 — defected to the opposition.

Since then, however, the countries have taken different paths. While Malaysia’s opposition gained an unlikely unifying figurehead in Mahathir, who ultimately unseated scandal-plagued Najib Razak in the May 9 elections, Cambodia’s opposition was gutted.

Last September, Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested and accused of treason. Cambodia then went further than Malaysia, with the Supreme Court dissolving the CNRP in November. Many of the party’s leaders fled the country.

When Cambodians voted last weekend, there was only going to be one winner: Hun Sen’s CPP.

Monovithya Kem, another exiled opposition leader and daughter of Kem Sokha, said in Jakarta that she hoped the democratically elected governments among the 10 ASEAN countries would “stand up for the Cambodian people.”

Hun Sen has said in the past that he wants to rule until he is 90 — not far off Mahathir’s age now — and is unlikely to be concerned by such exhortations. The fate of Malaysia’s Najib, who now faces possible jail time over corruption charges, will surely make Hun Sen even more determined not to leave Cambodia’s struggling opposition any openings.

For a few tense hours on election night, it had looked like Malaysia might also veer away from democracy.

After early numbers suggested the possibility of a shock win for Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, the results were inexplicably held up. When Mahathir held a late-night televised news conference in Kuala Lumpur, several hours after voting closed, the then 92-year-old spoke in his usual steady delivery, but his measured tone did not match the incendiary allegations.

“This is very serious, it should be coming out now, but there is a deliberate attempt to delay,” Mahathir said, challenging the country’s electoral commission to finish announcing the results.

In the end, Mahathir’s fears proved unfounded. The delay was later attributed to technical hitches, and about four hours after his warning, he was back in front of the media, arms held aloft by jubilant colleagues.

While Cambodia’s ruling CPP left nothing to chance, banning the one viable challenger ahead of the elections, Malaysia’s electoral system, though designed to help the BN, could not prevent a win for the Mahathir-inspired opposition.

“The election in Cambodia involved a united ruling party headed by a supposedly popular dictator competing against an assortment of powerless opposition parties,” said Lee Morgenbesser of the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University in Australia.

“In Malaysia, the contest was very different,” added Morgenbesser, author of “Behind the Facade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”

Mahathir, himself a former dictator, turned on his unpopular former colleague Najib to head an opposition coalition already dominant in Malaysia’s towns and cities. So although there were parallels between the two countries a few years ago, much has changed.

Monovithya Kem said the similarities seen in 2013 between politics in Cambodia and Malaysia are now history, given Hun Sen’s obliteration of dissent. “It is not comparable,” she told the Nikkei Asian Review. “In Malaysia the opposition was never completely denied a presence, nor was there no space for assembly.”

Follow us on Twitter
, , , ,