ALONG the banks of the swollen Mekong, aspiring politicians lead small convoys of vehicles through the countryside. Loudspeakers in the backs of pickups blast the local population with promises. Party volunteers, some with small children, hop off scooters to hand stickers to prospective voters. The activity is reaching fever pitch: more than 8m Cambodians are eligible to cast ballots in a national election on July 29th. Up for grabs are the 125 seats in Cambodia’s National Assembly, its lower house of parliament. Yet the outcome is hardly in doubt—not least because the ruling party has abolished the main opposition. The prime minister, Hun Sen, in power since 1985, will rule as the country’s strongman for a while longer.
His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has left little to chance. Last September Kem Sokha, who led the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested on trumped-up treason charges and still awaits trial. Another CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, cannot return from France without risking arrest. In November the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP for supposed attempts to stir up a “colour revolution” with America’s help. Its 55 seats in the National Assembly and hundreds of commune chief posts went to the CPP and to FUNCINPEC, a royalist party aligned with the ruling party. It was, the government explained, “a slight correction on democracy for the common public good”.
Campaigns to suppress civil-rights groups and the press also stepped up a gear. One newspaper closed after a sudden tax demand of $6.3m. Dozens of radio stations, which once gave the opposition a voice, have gone off-air. A score of small parties will compete on polling day, but will struggle against the CPP’s might and machinery. Most offer little leadership. The head of the Dharmacracy Party says that a spirit told her to enter politics.
The best of the new parties, the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), emerged out of an activism network founded by Kem Ley, a dissident assassinated two years ago. Farmers and students form the GDP’s base, with Facebook its chief medium. One young man training to be a mechanic says he likes its promise of tuition loans. Sam Inn, who is running as a candidate in Phnom Penh, the capital, says the party’s policies of education reform, free health-care schemes and more infrastructure will help it win 42 seats. It sounds optimistic: the GDP boasts barely 10,000 members.
A fig leaf of multiparty democracy probably matters to the 65-year-old autocrat. Mr Hun Sen’s people point to other parties competing as evidence of a legitimate contest. Suos Yara, the CPP spokesman, highlights the many foreign observers flying in to monitor the election. Yet the charade fools few. Mr Sam Rainsy has called for Cambodians to boycott the election: to vote, says the exiled leader, “is to endorse the death of democracy”. Mr Hun Sen would probably read a low turnout as a personal rebuke.
For all its power, the regime seems uneasy. The CNRP nearly won the last general election five years ago. Months of protests then erupted as angry workers from the textile factories on the edges of Phnom Penh demanded better pay and conditions. This time Mr Hun Sen has led a charm offensive among the garment workers, once a CNRP base. He has raised their minimum wage so far that it risks pushing the whole industry to Bangladesh. Whether Mr Hun Sen’s advisers have dared point that out to him is unclear.
Their habit is always to flatter him. Mr Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, sit like the rulers of old Angkor at the heart of cosmic relations, handing out rococo titles and rich sinecures to members of their court. While cronies prosper from logging concessions or licences to set up gambling operations, schools crumble and health care is out of reach for Cambodia’s poorest. Foreign policy is outsourced to China (to the annoyance of other members of ASEAN, the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations). Even the offspring of elites enriched by Mr Hun Sen’s rule say in private that it cannot go on like this forever. Some observers suspect Mr Hun Sen, whose right-hand man, Sok An, died last year, is losing a once-sure touch.
Western governments decry Cambodia’s direction of travel. The EU and America withheld funding for this election. Visa bans prevent many of Mr Hun Sen’s cronies from travelling to the United States. Denying Cambodia preferential trade access is another option—the EU alone receives about half of Cambodia’s exports, mostly sugar and clothes. But that would be a draconian action. It would hurt workers in some of the economy’s sunniest spots more than it would Mr Hun Sen, the country’s sun king, himself.