Cambodian Prime Minister Extends Reign Amid Opposition Boycott of Parliament

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/world/asia/cambodian-opposition-citing-disputed-election-boycotts-opening-of-parliament.html

Published: September 23, 2013

BANGKOK — Cambodia’s long-serving, authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, was elected to another five-year term in office on Tuesday despite a deadlock with the opposition, which has refused to attend the National Assembly in protest over alleged electoral cheating.

Mr. Hun Sen was set to be sworn into office later Tuesday by Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihamoni, officially extending the prime minister’s 28 years in power.

The king has sought in vain to broker an end to the acrimony after Mr. Hun Sen’s foes claimed widespread cheating in the July 28 election and rejected the official results, which left Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party in the majority, though weakened.

But the prime minister appears willing to govern Cambodia without the cooperation of the opposition. According to The Associated Press, Mr. Hun Sen told reporters Tuesday that he was willing to offer the opposition senior posts in the government but only if they ceased their boycott of the National Assembly.

Still, Mr. Hun Sen has projected what some analysts see as unusual signs of weakness.

He has made uncharacteristic, conciliatory gestures, including three recent meetings with Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. One lasted about five hours and centered on changes to the country’s electoral system.

Analysts disagree on whether Mr. Hun Sen, who in the past was dismissive of the opposition, is biding his time or has been significantly damaged by the election.

In its worst showing since 1998, the Cambodian People’s Party won just 68 seats of the 123 in the National Assembly, compared with 55 for the opposition, which made its greatest gains in a decade thanks to Mr. Rainsy’s newly unified party. The opposition said it would have captured the majority in a fair election.

David Chandler, a historian based in Australia and a leading expert on Cambodia’s politics, said Mr. Hun Sen “has no intention of diminishing his grip on the country” and has control of the major levers of power.

“Cambodian politics are very crass,” Mr. Chandler said. “The people who run the country are the ones with the money and the guns.” But the opposition’s parliamentary gains and the losses by the Cambodia People’s Party have put Mr. Hun Sen in “slightly unfamiliar territory,” Mr. Chandler said.

“I think he feels like he’s lost a couple of chess pieces,” he said. “He’s a bit more cautious.”

By contrast, Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, sees Mr. Hun Sen as badly wounded and fearful for the future.

The governing party’s election campaign was very personalized and built around the presumed popularity of Mr. Hun Sen, so the outcome “was a major blow to his ego,” Mr. Ou Virak said.

In his speeches over the past three years, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly mentioned the Arab Spring, an apparent preoccupation that Mr. Ou Virak said helped give insight into the prime minister’s mind-set.

“He is fearful, and he is looking at some of the other long-term dictators and strongmen around the world who have fallen,” Mr. Ou Virak said.

The opening of the National Assembly on Monday was attended by foreign dignitaries, including the American ambassador to Cambodia, William E. Todd. But soon after the ceremony, the United States Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement saying Mr. Todd’s attendance was “not an endorsement of any election outcome or of any political party.” The statement also called for a “transparent review of irregularities” in the July election that would help address “flaws in the electoral process.”

A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2013, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Cambodian Prime Minister Extends Reign Amid Opposition Boycott of Parliament.
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