What Should The EU Do After Cambodia’s July 23rd General Election?

by David Hutt

Jul 14, 2023 in CEIAS Insights

What Should The EU Do After Cambodia’s July 23rd General Election?

The European Union faces a difficult decision in responding to Cambodia’s general election later this month. The ballot is assured to be unfree and unfair, but should Brussels respond punitively, potentially impacting its relations with the ASEAN bloc and a potential new Cambodian leader, or play nice in order to gain leverage amid a once-in-a-generation handover of power in Phnom Penh?

On July 23rd, Cambodians will head to the polls for a general election the result of which we already know. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, will win the vast majority, if not all, parliamentary seats, just as it did at the last national election in 2018. Similar to five years ago, the CPP’s main political rival has been barred from competing. Independent newspapers have been forcibly closed. Civil society is a shell of what it was in the early 2010s. Thousands of opposition activists and organizers have reportedly defected to the CPP because of threats or financial inducement. It is no longer acceptable to be politically neutral; loyalty tests are being imposed across all of society. Anyone who doesn’t vote in the election will not be able to stand for elected office in the future and could be heavily fined, a way of preventing a boycott, according to a legal amendment rushed through parliament in June. Yet, unknowns include voter turnout (the ruling party is desperate for it to be around 80 percent, similar to the 2018 election, so as to confer some legitimacy on this year’s election) and what percentage of voters will spoil their ballot. There were more invalid ballots than votes cast for the second-placed party in 2018, a protest by the electorate against the forced dissolution of the only viable challenger, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). 

The other unknown is how the international community will respond. The United States and the European Union have already condemned the barring of the Candlelight Party, the main opposition party, from the election in May, as well as the forced closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the last independent newspapers, three months earlier. However, it remains unclear if the EU will escalate its sanctions against Cambodia, which stem from events in 2017. That year, the ruling CPP had the Supreme Court forcibly dissolve the largest opposition party, the CNRP, on the spurious accusation of plotting a US-backed coup. Kem Sokha, the party’s president, was arrested for treason in September 2017 but remained in detention until March this year, when he was convicted. Sam Rainsy, the other CNRP leader, has been in exile since 2015. He was joined by most of the party’s lawmakers after they lost their seats in parliament because of the CNRP’s dissolution in 2017. 

As a result, in 2018, the EU threatened to remove Cambodia’s trade privileges provided by the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which grants tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets for some developing countries, unless there were “clear and demonstrable improvements” to its human rights record. But Brussels only started the review process in February 2019. It wasn’t until March 2020 that the Commission finally agreed to impose punitive measures. Even then, it instigated only a partial revocation; about 20 percent of goods included in the EBA scheme had tariffs and quotas reimposed, equivalent to about US$1.1 billion of Cambodia’s Europe-bound exports. Whereas the US has imposed targeted sanctions on officials close to Hun Sen, including the head of his Bodyguard Unit and the country’s navy chief, the EU has not.

The EU has threatened more action if the July 23rd election is unfree and unfair (which it will be). It won’t send election monitors to Cambodia for the ballot. On March 3rd, after the conviction of Kem Sokha, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement that the EU “regrets the continued use of the judiciary to limit space for political opponents, civil society and independent media. This conviction effectively excludes Kem Sokha from participating in political life and therefore continues to deprive Cambodia’s citizens of the right to choose their representatives in inclusive and credible elections, and further restrains the political space in the country.” On March 16th, a European Parliament resolution called “for the coordinated use of available political avenues including the further suspension of Cambodia’s ‘Everything But Arms’ status if the 2023 elections deviate from international standards or violations of human rights continue”, as well as urging the European Council to “adopt targeted sanctions, under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, to hold accountable all persons responsible for serious human rights violations and the dissolution and subsequent repression of the Cambodian opposition”. On May 15th, after the Candlelight Party was barred from running in the election, the Commission said in a statement that it “strongly objects to the decision…which adds to depriving Cambodia’s citizens of the right to choose their representatives. Democratic elections demand open, inclusive and credible political competition and citizens to be allowed to freely choose their representatives.”

At the same time, however, European institutions have improved their cooperation with Cambodia since 2021. In recent months Brussels has announced new funding for social projects such as “ARISE Plus Cambodia” and development of STEM education. Last September, the European Investment Bank (EIB) said it wants to expand its presence in Cambodia. France, in particular, has improved relations with the Cambodian government. French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Hun Sen to the Elysee Palace last December. The following month, Olivier Becht, the French Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade, Economic Attractiveness and French Nationals Abroad, extolled that “Cambodia has a very special place in France’s relations with the ASEAN countries” and claimed that it “can be a gateway for France to the ASEAN countries,” references to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc. Perhaps it’s telling that the Commission has nominated Igor Driesmans, the current EU ambassador to ASEAN, to become the next ambassador to Phnom Penh, after the incumbent Carmen Moreno leaves later this year. Driesmans, also the EU special envoy on the Myanmar crisis, is one of the EU’s most experienced diplomats in the region, and his reappointment to Phnom Penh suggests that Brussels takes seriously its relations with the country — or, at least, that Brussels sees the need for someone with Southeast Asian experience in this job, since all of the other nominees to occupy soon-to-be vacant delegations in Southeast Asia were previously deployed outside the region. (In some ways, this replicates Washington’s decision to appoint W. Patrick Murphy as ambassador to Phnom Penh, when he had previously served as US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, a high-ranking regional role.)

The Cambodian government, including Hun Sen, has claimed (such as in March 2023) that it isn’t too concerned about losing further EBA privileges, although it is believed that the economic ministries are less gung-ho. Hun Sen has also insinuated that the EBA isn’t too important as he expects Cambodia to graduate from “least developed country” status by 2027, after which the EU’s trade privileges, under the EBA, will be revoked. That isn’t quite accurate, as grace periods can be given, and Cambodia might want to apply for inclusion on the EU’s other privileged trade schemes because there is currently no prospect of an EU-Cambodia free trade agreement nor an EU trade deal with the entire ASEAN bloc. However, a few months later, while speaking to garment factory workers, Hun Sen warned that international sanctions could result in job losses, and told the workers not to support “opposition party officials who have urged foreigners not to invest in Cambodia and buy products from Cambodia”, an apparent reference to the EU. A further tightening of Cambodia’s privileges under the EBA would certainly dent bilateral trade in goods, which was worth €6.3 billion last year. Exports of textiles and footwear, bicycles, prepared foodstuffs and vegetable products (namely rice) represented 94.2 percent of Cambodia’s exports to the EU in 2021, according to Commission figures

Based on past EU statements of what changes it wants to see from the Cambodian government and how Phnom Penh has responded, it’s clear that an incrementalist approach hasn’t worked. The EBA sanctions came several years too late to alter the political dynamics surrounding the CNRP’s dissolution and the conduct of the 2018 general election. By 2020, there was no real possibility of going back to the status quo ante. Instead of removing all privileges, which might have put the Cambodian government in a more difficult situation, the removal of just a fifth was manageable, especially as the main export goods, garments and footwear, were not affected by the EU’s punitive measures. The sanctions were also imposed as the COVID-19 pandemic began (the partial ban took effect in August 2020) so it was difficult to ascertain the impact of them — and, indeed, easier for Phnom Penh to disguise the impact. 

With that in mind, Brussels has three options for how to respond to the July 23rd general election:

1. Go hard

As well as the expected tough-sounding statements condemning the conduct of the election and the further decline of Cambodian democracy, the EU announces that it will launch proceedings to remove more trade privileges under the EBA scheme (either half or all of them). It says this process will take several months, during which time the Phnom Penh government could stop the process by releasing political prisoners, reinstating the political rights of the CNRP and the CP, and engaging in judicial reform. The European Council, as requested by the European Parliament, begins the process to impose targeted sanctions on high-ranking Cambodian officials under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime for conducting “arbitrary arrests or detentions”. The EU also convenes a meeting of ambassadors of individual EU member states to ensure a united stance.

2. Go soft

Brussels joins the likes of the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom (and possibly Japan) in expressing its disapproval of how the elections were conducted, states they they were “unfair and unfree”, calls on Phnom Penh to release political prisoners and re-open the space for a multiparty system. But the EU decides not to remove any more trade privileges under the EBA scheme or impose targeted sanctions. It concludes that the EU lacks the leverage or the will to impose tough enough punitive measures to significantly improve the political situation in Phnom Penh.

3. Go engage

The EU issues less-than-scathing condemnatory statements about the conduct of the election and the demise of Cambodian democracy. Instead, it says it is monitoring the situation. At the same time, it says that it is willing to reinstate all trade privileges based upon a new criteria, which does not include the release of Kem Sokha or the reinstatement of the CNRP, but a series of non-political legal and business reforms that aim to improve rule of law and an independent judiciary. In other words, the EU stops focusing on “credible elections” and the “political space in the country”, and instead sets out to engage with the post-election government on issues over which Phnom Penh is less likely to feel its sovereignty is threatened. 

The Succession Factor

It is difficult to forecast what impact each of the three above-mentioned options would have, given that the Cambodian government’s decision-making is notoriously difficult to predict and, in the past, has tended to quickly U-turn on key geopolitical issues when pressured. It is possible that, once the CPP has secured all seats in parliament at the election, it engages in a process of opening-up and liberalizing, as it has done in the past (although not after the 2018 general election). Greatly complicating the matter, and making July’s general election somewhat exceptional, is the prospect of a once-in-a-generation change of leadership in Phnom Penh.

For years, Hun Sen has planned to hand over the prime ministership to his eldest son, Hun Manet. That process was started in 2018 when Manet became army chief and deputy commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). It has gone into overdrive since late 2021, when the CPP’s Central Committee approved Manet as the party’s future prime ministerial candidate. In April, he temporarily stepped down from the military so he could run for parliament in July’s election (as per the Constitution). As campaigning got underway on July 1st, Hun Sen symbolically handed the party’s flag over to his son to carry at a CPP mass rally. The general election will be presented by Hun Sen as a plebiscite on his succession plans, hence why he is so eager for there to be no electoral upsets or low voter turnout rates. 

No-one, except Hun Sen’s inner court, knows when that succession will actually take place. That decision may not have even been made yet. It could happen immediately after the election; Hun Sen has said he expects the next cabinet to be sworn in on August 29th, and it could include Hun Manet as prime minister. Alternatively, Hun Sen may want to give it a few months, to wait to see how the international community responds to the general election, such as whether new trade sanctions are imposed. It’s possible that Hun Sen intends to become Senate president after stepping down, a post that will allow him to serve as acting head of state when the King is out of the country. So he may choose to remain premier until next year’s Senate elections.

The specter of a leadership change in Phnom Penh changes the dynamics of the European Union’s response. Although Hun Sen has artfully maneuvered all of the pieces for a smooth transfer of power, it isn’t without risk. Some CPP grandees—Defence Minister Tea Banh and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, for instance— are believed not to be enamored by the Hun family accumulating even more power. To assuage doubts, Hun Sen has promised a “generational succession”, in which the children or relatives of the current political leaders will also rise through the ranks. It’s expected that Sar Sokha, an undersecretary of state at the education ministry, will inherit his father’s role as Interior Minister, for example, although there are question marks about whether Tea Seiha, the current Siem Reap governor, will take over from his father as defense minister. (The military’s loyalties to different CPP patrons have long been divided between branches of the armed forces and regiments, a reason why Hun Sen still commands a powerful Bodyguard Unit.) If that generational succession doesn’t happen as smoothly as intended, and it’s probable that some individuals will feel they aren’t given the powerful roles they expect, then an inchoate Manet administration could experience problems. 

The international community won’t want a destabilized Cambodia, particularly with nearby Myanmar in the midst of a civil war and with Southeast Asia considered a region of immense importance for the EU’s agenda in the Indo-Pacific. Trade and targeted sanctions post-election would certainly complicate matters for Hun Sen’s succession plans, especially if they are coupled with tougher sanctions from the United States and possibly Australia. Should an intra-party rival emerge to Manet, Hun Sen may use the canard of foreign intervention. Hun Sen, who has repeatedly accused Western governments of undermining Cambodian sovereignty or directly plotting his downfall, would allege the West is complicit in supporting any intra-party rival to his son, destabilizing the party and the country. The EU should also bear in mind that the ASEAN general secretary until 2028 is Kao Kim Hourn, who served as Minister Delegate attached to Hun Sen’s office between 2013 and 2022, and a two-term secretary of state at Cambodia’s foreign ministry. It’s not inconceivable that if Brussels takes a “go hard” approach, this would impact relations with the ASEAN Secretariat, the bloc’s (weak) executive. 

At the same time, there is a prevailing opinion in some Western capitals that Hun Manet, once he takes over, will have to run Cambodia in a more open manner domestically and adopt a more neutralist position between the US-China rivalry. That may not be obvious at first, as Hun Sen will still control the political strings after resigning as premier. He will remain as CPP president for the foreseeable future. Moreover, Manet owes almost all of his legitimacy, for now, to being Hun Sen’s son and his chosen successor. Indeed, Manet validity stems from his father’s status, as shown by recently published hagiographic biographies that carry titles such as Hun Manet: The First Son of Prime Minister On The Way to Succeed His Father or Influential Eldest Son. Whereas Hun Sen is Cambodia’s “strongman”, Hun Manet will be the “strongson”, his legitimacy tied to his father’s. 

However, as his premiership advances, Manet will have to make his own way. He was educated at America’s elite West Point military academy and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He speaks English well and cuts a more cosmopolitan figure than his father, who has always been awkward on the world stage and is instinctively parochial. Whereas Hun Sen’s style of leadership is personalist and intervening, Manet will have to rule in a more consensus decision-making manner. Hun Sen regularly intervenes in the most minute government affairs, from how to score high-school exam results to delays in construction works. Generally, his intervention breaks ministerial foot dragging and incompetence (especially as the ministries are bloated with loyalists and defectors), while also settling divisions between ministries. He also, especially in recent years, conducts “governance by whim”, frequently thinking out loud about policies during his near-daily public speeches, after which ministries are expected to formulate his ideas into policy or, on rare occasions, opine that they are unrealistic. However, Manet will not command the same degree of trust or fear as his father, nor does he have the instincts to know what is sensible policy or not. (He has never held an elected office before and, to date, has tended to publicly recommend policies that are already under consideration.) As a result, ministries will have to be more independent and self-sufficient under his leadership, which means prioritizing competency, not loyalty, as markers for promotion. The “generational succession” has been pitched as a technocratic shift, with the next generation of CPP leaders working to finetune and perfect the policies they inherit from the “founding fathers”. Institutionally, this change will have to take place if Hun Sen is to retire from politics at some point (he is now 70 and rumors of ill-health have dogged him for years) and if Manet is to attempt to be his own man. 

What does that mean for the EU? It may feel compelled to “go soft” or “engage” so as not to potentially destabilize the succession process, as well as to gain additional leverage over a neophyte Manet administration. The EU should see this succession process as an opportunity to engage in constructive talks with the Cambodian government, where possible. Hun Manet was recently a guest of honor at the American Chamber of Commerce’s gala dinner in Phnom Penh, an event Hun Sen would not show up to nowadays. He is close to the South Korean business community thanks to his wife’s business connections, and is believed to maintain good relations with Australia and Vietnam. He has twice met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Brussels should make efforts to personally engage with Manet and the ministers who will be closest to him in cabinet. That includes the current agriculture minister Dith Tina and justice minister Koeut Rith, both in their forties and who are expected to be promoted in the next cabinet in August. Hun Many, Manet’s younger brother, is tipped to become the next civil service minister. Sar Sokha, the expected next interior minister, is also president of the Cambodian Football Association, a potential means of leverage for the EU, for instance. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen and son Hun Manet meet with Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2020. Source: Hun Manet Facebook
Prime Minister Hun Sen and son Hun Manet meet with Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2020. Source: Hun Manet Facebook

However, the possibility of a change of leadership in Phnom Penh should not tempt Brussels into thinking that a “go soft” approach will automatically translate into improved relations. After all, Hun Sen could well delay the succession for several years. As such, the EU should respond to the July 23rd with only the succession in the back of its mind. If Phnom Penh perceives the EU to be weak or no longer willing to stand up for human rights and democracy in Cambodia, it would also start post-Hun Sen relations off on the wrong foot. 

That said, Brussels should also accept that it needs to alter some of its messaging. For years, it has demanded the return to the status quo ante pre-November 2017: the reinstatement of the CNRP as a legal party, the release of Kem Sokha, and the restoration of a multiparty system. However, the CNRP will almost certainly never be allowed to reform as a legal party, and it’s clear that the party no longer exists in the same way it did in 2017; there are irrevocable differences between the Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha factions, while its activist base is now scattered and has mixed loyalties. Kem Sokha will only be released from detention by a royal pardon, and the EU will not want to be seen as recommending that. Instead, Brussels should press the Cambodian government to engage in systematic reforms to tackle corruption, human trafficking and environmental degradation. Brussels should make these reforms contingent on EU financial support for Cambodia’s “green transition” and development program. As the CPP’s six-point manifesto for the current election campaign makes clear, it is focused on developing the agriculture sector. Cambodia’s economic growth depends on exports of garments from the cities and rice from the countryside, both of which the EU is a leading importer. The EU could also invest more in rebuilding Cambodia’s civil society, including more funding for independent media. It could also make it easier for Cambodian dissidents to claim asylum in the EU. The EU has not made explicit statements regarding US allegations that the Chinese military will be allowed to station troops at Cambodia’s Ream naval base. Neither has Brussels focused on Cambodia’s close partnership with Beijing. It would be sensible to continue to keep such geopolitics out of the picture

Cover photo: Hun Manet Facebook page.




David Hutt
David Hutt

Research Fellow | Editor

Key Topics

Cambodian electionsEUtransitionCambodia


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