Cambodia’s ruling party has swept the board in the election for the country’s Senate in a vote limited to local officials and parliament members, and branded undemocratic by activists.
The ruling Cambodian People’s party, led by Hun Sen, long-time strongman and prime minister, won 45 of the Senate’s 61 seats, results considered a foregone conclusion given the poll’s limited franchise. Ballots were cast by just 13,000 people – the existing members of parliament and commune council members, who were chosen in local elections in 2002. The CPP won most constituencies in 2002 after an election campaign marred by violence and intimidation.
While democracy groups have criticised the conduct of the Senate poll, and the creation of the upper house itself as an unnecessary expense, some western diplomats said the indirectly elected body was an improvement on the past, when it was entirely appointed.
“It is arguably progress towards democracy in the sense that in the previous Senate, the members were essentially appointed,” said a Phnom Penh-based diplomat. “In terms of strict democratic theory, this is quite an important little step.”
The Senate was created in 1998 mainly as a source of political patronage and sinecures for members of the country’s main political parties. It was given a role advising the National Assembly and giving its opinions on draft legislation, though political observers say it has acted mainly as a rubber stamp.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said one of the Senate’s main drawbacks was its lack of clear purpose and its cost to taxpayers of up to $5m (€4.1m, £2.8m) a year, including the $12,000 annual salaries for each of the 63 senators.
The election comes at a time of growing concern about the future of Cambodia’s fragile democracy as Mr Hun Sen pursues intimidating criminal defamation cases against opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists.
In December, Sam Rainsy, the exiled opposition leader, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison for defaming Mr Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly.
The prime minister recently promised to drop criminal defamation charges against several human rights activists and a radio journalist, but yesterday declared it was “impossible” to drop the charges now as investigations were already under way.