Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Elections

International pressure persuaded Cambodia’s ex-Communist strongman and prime minister Hun Sen to hold elections in 1998, after ousting his copremier Norodom Ranariddh in a 1997 coup. Winning the elections, but failing to obtain the two-thirds majority constitutionally required for sole rule, Sen formed an uneasy coalition with Ranariddh. This gave Cambodia a modicum of peace and stability, set the pattern for future power sharing, and eased surrender of the last Khmer Rouge forces by 1999.

Summary of Event

The two key contenders in the 1998 Cambodian elections were Hun Sen, representing the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and his longtime antagonist Norodom Ranariddh, of the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC). Sam Rainsy led the small, liberal Sam Rainsy Party (PSR). Prime ministers;Cambodia
Revolutions and coups;Cambodia
[kw]Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Elections (July 26, 1998)
[kw]Cambodian Elections, Hun Sen Wins (July 26, 1998)
[kw]Elections, Hun Sen Wins Cambodian (July 26, 1998)
Prime ministers;Cambodia
Revolutions and coups;Cambodia
[g]Southeast Asia;July 26, 1998: Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Elections[10090]
[g]Cambodia;July 26, 1998: Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Elections[10090]
[c]Government and politics;July 26, 1998: Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Elections[10090]
Hun Sen
Ranariddh, Norodom
Rainsy, Sam
Sihanouk, Norodom

Hun came to power in Cambodia on January 10, 1979, when Vietnam overthrew the murderous Khmer Rouge Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in the “killing fields” from April, 1975, to December, 1978. A former Khmer Rouge member, Hun fled to Vietnam in 1977, but, in 1979, returned to become foreign minister of the Vietnamese-supported Cambodian government.

The Khmer Rouge continued to fight the Vietnamese-installed government, and attracted non-Communist, anti-Vietnamese allies. In 1981, Ranariddh’s father, Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former king, founded FUNCINPEC as a royalist, anti-Vietnamese force. In 1985, Hun became prime minister of the Vietnamese-supported Cambodian government. Ranariddh became secretary-general of FUNCINPEC in 1989.

The warring parties in Cambodia slowly sought peace. A conference in Paris in the summer of 1989 led to a comprehensive peace project supported by the United Nations. Free Cambodian elections were held from May 23 to May 28, 1993, boycotted only by the Khmer Rouge. Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC won the 1993 elections, but Hun insisted on participation in government at the threat of renewed fighting. Consequently, the Cambodian constitution of September 24, 1993, established a constitutional monarchy with Sihanouk as head of state, and required the government to have a two-thirds majority in the national assembly. Ranariddh was elected first prime minister, and Hun was dubbed second prime minister.

Ranariddh and Hun competed for the support of Khmer Rouge leaders and troops that had defected from the party in 1995 and 1996. After Ranariddh left for Paris on July 4, 1997, Hun’s supporters attacked FUNCINPEC followers on July 5 and 6, killing about one hundred members. Accusing Ranariddh of plotting a coup assisted by Khmer Rouge, Hun seized solitary power. He appointed a puppet FUNCINPEC member, Ung Huot, as successor to Ranariddh.

Intense international pressure, especially from the countries that contributed about 90 percent of Cambodia’s national budget, urged Hun to conduct the scheduled 1998 elections fairly. On October 22, 1997, Hun wrote to U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and pledged safe return for exiled opposition candidates and guaranteed fair elections.

After two agreed-upon trials detailing his alleged coup of 1997 and a subsequent royal pardon on March 21, 1998, Ranariddh returned to Cambodia on March 31. Despite voter intimidation and violence against candidates in opposition to Hun, including three assassinations of FUNCINPEC members, on March 28, parties were approved for national elections; voter registration began on May 18. Hun’s CPP enjoyed a head start in campaigning, aided by their control of the electronic media and the government. There remained a groundswell of political violence, but FUNCINPEC and the PSR campaigned vigorously.

On July 26, 1998, five million Cambodians, an impressive 93.7 percent of the registered voters, cast their ballots in the national assembly election. Even though some abuses and irregularities occurred, international observers found the election process relatively fair. With 97 percent of the votes considered valid, the 1998 elections were a remarkable moment for the young Cambodian democracy.

Election results yielded Hun’s CPP 2 million votes, or 41 percent, translating into 64 seats of the 122-seat national assembly. Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC gained 1.5 million votes, or 32 percent, garnering 43 seats. Rainsy’s party obtained 700,000 votes, a 14 percent share, gaining 15 seats. Minor parties compiled approximately 600,000 votes but did not receive a single seat.

Hun won the elections yet was unable to govern alone. Under the two-thirds majority requirement that Hun had insisted on after the 1993 elections, his 1998 win had him short of a sufficient majority in the national assembly.

Even after the official election results were proclaimed on August 5, 1998, and claims of fraud were rejected on September 1, coalition negotiations between Hun and Ranariddh were arduous. Conceding that there would only be one prime minister, Ranariddh insisted on becoming president of the national assembly. This was opposed by the current CPP candidate holding this office, Chea Sim.

After three weeks of opposition protests in front of the national assembly, where protesters violently clashed with riot police and CPP supporters, on September 22, Sihanouk met with Hun, Ranariddh, and Rainsy in Siem Reap to negotiate a compromise. As a result, the new national assembly was sworn in on September 24. However, a rocket attack on Hun’s convoy that morning led to charges of an assassination attempt. Ranariddh and Rainsy, fearing repercussions, left Cambodia immediately after the end of the assembly session.

It was not until November 11, 1998, that the new CPP/FUNCINPEC coalition government was finalized. It was inaugurated on December 1. Hun became prime minister. Ranariddh became president of the national assembly. Cambodia’s constitution was amended on March 4, 1999, to create a new senate. Members of the new senate were appointed by the king and the political parties.


In 1998, international pressure forced Hun to agree to free elections in Cambodia. That the CPP was forced into a coalition government with Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party and had to accept the opposition of the PSR in the national assembly assured Cambodia of a certain level of democracy.

International acceptance of a sufficiently democratic election and the emergence of a generally stable coalition government led the international community to resume its substantial aid to Cambodia and welcome the nation into its global bodies. In December, 1998, Cambodia reoccupied its seat at the United Nations, and on April 30, 1999, it became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In August, 2004, Cambodia entered the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The emergence of a stable Cambodian coalition government in 1998 also eased the dissolution of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge forces. On December 25, 1998, Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea surrendered to the government. In an ambiguous, if not distasteful, ceremony, Hun warmly welcomed them with flowers in Phnom Penh.

Hun’s obvious reluctance to try former Khmer Rouge leaders remained a sore issue between his coalition government and most of the international community. Only two surrendering Khmer Rouge leaders had been jailed by early 2007.

The coalition government of Cambodia, established by the outcome of the 1998 elections, continued to hold into the next millennium. It was only in March, 2006, that Hun was able to end the two-thirds majority requirement for a government and begin sole rule. Having lost power, Ranariddh was expelled from the national assembly on December 12, 2006. Prime ministers;Cambodia
Revolutions and coups;Cambodia

Further Reading

  • Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade, 1998. Journalistic account of Cambodia’s recent history. Final chapter covers the 1998 elections.
  • Mehta, Harish C., and Julie B. Mehta. Hun Sen: Strongman of Cambodia. Singapore: Graham Brash, 1999. Extremely sympathetic biography that paints Hun in the best light possible.
  • Peou, Sorpong. “Cambodia in 1998.” Asian Survey 39 (January/February, 1999): 20-27. Review of the election year by a scholar of Cambodian politics. Guardedly optimistic about Cambodia’s future, especially in light of surrendering of Khmer Rouge members.
  • _______. “The Cambodian Elections of 1998 and Beyond: Democracy in the Making?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 20 (December, 1998): 279-297. Scholarly, comprehensive analysis of the elections; author is uncertain of chances for genuine democracy in modern Cambodia.
  • Roberts, David. Political Transition in Cambodia, 1991-1999: Power, Elitism, and Democracy. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon, 2001. Argues that the U.N. mission to Cambodia failed to install a genuine democracy and that the 1998 elections created a superficial coalition masking deep underlying conflicts and traditional authoritarian rule.

U.S. Troops Leave Vietnam

Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia

Vietnamese Troops Withdraw from Cambodia