The election: ten things we learned

With the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party gaining more seats than ever in the National Assembly, the political situation has shifted, meaning politicians and observers will be required to adjust their understanding of Cambodian politics

Dr Markus Karbaum
September 6, 2013
The election: ten things we learned
CNRP leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy greet their followers prior to making their speeches in front of 20,000 people in Phnom Penh

1. The National Election Committee failed to produce a credible result.

Irrespective of whether fraud occurred or not, it is difficult to find the result credible. Defects in the voter lists were too grave, and the NEC’s efforts to handle them were far from satisfying. The electoral system – including seat distribution and allocation – contradicts the lifestyle habits of many Cambodians and the geographic structure of the population. To produce reliable results in future elections, the NEC will have to initiate a fundamental reform of the election law and its own operational organisation.

 2. Sam Rainsy enjoyed his most successful days as a politician.

Many had written him off, but Sam Rainsy is at the zenith of his popularity and political significance. Rainsy currently has two options and must choose his strategy wisely. He can instigate confrontation by refusing the election result and organising mass demonstrations; or he can cooperate, by accepting the findings of the election probe and waiting for his next chance, using the intervening years to prove that he and the party are up to the task of running the country efficiently.

3. Racism has entered the political arena.

Sam Rainsy’s success also has a dark side. It is alarming that he and Kem Sokha, as leading politicians of the CNRP, fuel hatred for the Vietnamese minority, many of whom have lived in Cambodia for decades. Independent of any real or imaginary problem that goes along with the integration of this particular minority, nothing legitimises such dangerous populism. We can only hope that the inculcation of such prejudice will not lead to concrete actions. Sadly, this is rather unlikely if CNRP politicians continue to stoke the fire as they did during the election campaign.

4. Opposition gains do not necessarily mean gains for democracy.

Since 1993, the oft-observed failure of the democratic restart in Cambodia has mainly been caused by a lack of corresponding political culture. This was largely caused by politicians following traditional Cambodian concepts of hierarchy and supreme leadership. The principle of power sharing was not accepted, and distrust perseveres to this day. A workable common basis must be found. Otherwise, is it realistic to expect the CNRP to chair almost half of the parliament’s commissions? Will the debates where the CNRP presents its concepts be marked by respect and fairness? Or will the CPP continue to regard parliament as a rubber stamp assembly?

5. The CPP is not unbeatable.

For years, the ruling party has benefited from this myth. Over and out. However, upon realising that this is not the case, more people will be encouraged to confess their support for the CNRP. The psychological impact will also prove immense: The CPP must recognise that its power is vulnerable and that the methods used to maintain its power for decades do not appear to either impress the electorate nor fit the forthcoming challenges.

6. Within the CPP, nothing is possible without its strongman.

In most nations, any leader with a similar drop in votes would be called into question. However, the CPP is a party that consists of patron-client relations, making it nearly impossible to replace the leader. It is Hun Sen who decides the strategies of his party, and his followers stand by him through good and bad. In good times, one might praise the CPP for its tremendous internal discipline, but history has shown that such inflexibility can have its own consequences.

7. Hun Sen is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

If Hun Sen revisits his actions of 1997-1998 to consolidate his power, he will isolate Cambodia in the international arena, as well as damage the enormous business interests of senior party officials and their families. Domestically, this would tighten his position – but only temporarily. On the other hand, if he makes democratic advances, they cannot be minimal – even though too much liberalisation can be the beginning of a regime’s end. Therefore, we must expect no major changes in Hun Sen’s policies except minor social welfare projects, which will likely be managed by the same people as before.

8. Ruling by fear has come to an end.

Fear was Hun Sen’s major tool for securing his grip on Cambodia, but it now appears ineffective, and it will be interesting to see if the prime minister is able to develop a more modern leadership style. His hunger for power and political instincts are unrivalled by any Cambodian politician of the past 30 years, but the future will require much adaptive skill. In any case, it would be naïve to underestimate Hun Sen.

9. The emancipation of Cambodia’s people has begun.

The political thinking of many Cambodians has normally maintained traditional notions of hierarchy and subordination. Especially in rural areas, people felt a need to vote for the ruling and most powerful party out of respect, making the electorate reminiscent of subjects rather than autonomous citizens. The number of people exhibiting such behaviour declined dramatically in this election – an important step towards a functioning democracy in the future.

10. A change of government could be on the cards.

The enthusiasm of young people for the CNRP was a key element of its success. In five years’ time, teenagers who are as young as 13 right now will also cast their ballots. Cambodia has an average age of less than 24 years – potentially a huge reserve of CNRP supporters. The biggest mistake the opposition could make is abandoning its status and forming a coalition government with the CPP. This would demonstrate a hunger for power along the old lines, and the CNRP would hardly benefit from this arrangement – the call for a new opposition would be inevitable and deafening.

Dr Markus Karbaum is an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics and regional integration in Southeast Asia

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