New York Times Op-Ed by Professor Kheang Un Looks at Cambodia’s Elections

The Cambodian People Have Spoken
The New York Times: International
By Kheang Un
Cambodia is at a standstill. On Saturday, the National Election Committee is expected to announce the official results of the July 28 general election. The government has already claimed victory: It announced soon after polling closed that the governing Cambodian People’s Party (C.P.P.) had won 68 seats and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (C.N.R.P.) 55. But the opposition contests the count, alleging massive fraud, and it says it will boycott the new National Assembly if an independent investigation isn’t conducted. Prime Minister Hun Sen opposes any inquiry not overseen by the very election commission the opposition accuses of vote-rigging, and he has threatened to redistribute to the C.P.P. any seats the C.N.R.P. leaves vacant.

Even going by the government’s numbers, these results are a serious setback for Hun Sen’s party: a loss of 22 seats — it used to hold 90 — and of a two-thirds majority, the threshold for amending the Constitution. And it is a stunning turn of events considering that just one month ago a decisive victory for the C.P.P. seemed like a foregone conclusion.

The ruling party had many advantages. After years of war, Cambodia is firmly at peace and its economy is doing well. According to a survey by the International Republican Institute early this year, 79 percent of Cambodians believed that the country was headed in “the right direction.” The C.P.P., a former Communist party that has been in power since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, has far greater financial and organizational resources than any other party. It has a near-monopoly over the media, the security forces and all government institutions, national and local, including the election committee.

Yet an appetite for change had been growing, most visibly among the youth. Approximately 50 percent of eligible voters are under 25, and many of them rallied behind the C.N.R.P., a party formed last year after the merger of two opposition groups led by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. This spring, while Sam Rainsy, the party leader, was in self-imposed exile in France — to avoid a prison sentence on criminal charges he says are politically motivated — Kem Sokha, the C.N.R.P.’s number two and a longtime human rights activist, crisscrossed the country, campaigning from the back of a pickup truck.

And then Sam Rainsy received a pardon, likely thanks to pressure from the U.S. government. After he returned to Cambodia, the C.N.R.P.’s popularity took off. On July 19, over 100,000 people, mostly young, lined the streets from the airport all the way to the center of Phnom Penh to welcome him back. That day and at subsequent C.N.R.P. rallies, the crowds were exuberant. Many supporters had made small donations and volunteered to canvas for the party. All were answering its populist and nationalist call to mobilize against the C.P.P.’s entrenched interests.

Discontent is widespread among ordinary Cambodians, despite improved living conditions overall. Growth in Cambodia, as in many developing countries, has been based largely on crony capitalism. Development has created a newly rich class — business tycoons, government elites, the military — while dispossessing the rural and the urban poor. Yet instead of addressing growing inequality and corruption, the C.P.P. campaigned on the memory of the Khmer Rouge, using the brutal regime as a yardstick for its own achievements, and reasserted the traditional Khmer patronage system. It built infrastructure and doled out social services selectively to reward communities that supported it. On visits to rural areas, party members would distribute small gifts, like cash, clothing and small packets of MSG.

Meanwhile, the C.P.P. underestimated the opposition. Since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1993, Hun Sen managed to divide the opposition with dubious lawsuits or outright bribery. But this time the opposition showed a united front.

The C.N.R.P. also relied on populist policies to mobilize Cambodia’s have-nots, its have-too-littles and its highly expectant youth. Its platform promised better health care, higher salaries for state employees and factory workers, and lower prices for commodities like gasoline and fertilizer. Its program was clear, practical, appealing. When asked how all this would be funded, party leaders said state revenues could be increased simply by curbing corruption. The line resonated with voters.

The C.N.R.P. played the populist card even when that meant peddling xenophobia. It capitalized on widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment, the result of wars fought centuries ago and of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in 1979-89. The party linked popular fears over immigration from Vietnam to growing concerns that the government is selling country’s rich land in the form of economic concessions, often to Vietnamese companies. That argument allowed the C.N.R.P. to turn discrete reports about farmers and villagers being expropriated into a much broader case against the wholesale exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources by an ill-intentioned neighbor.

Other things had also changed in the countryside, the C.P.P.’s traditional base. Cambodian farmers still tend to be cautious, but many have become more tactically astute: While they might still express outward support for the C.P.P., many wanted change. When the party offered them gifts in exchange for a promise to vote for the C.P.P., they took the gifts and promised. But come election day, many cast their ballots against the ruling party.

If this election shows anything it’s that Cambodian voters — once easy to manipulate in the name of stability — now expect much more from their leaders.

What can they expect now of Hun Sen and the C.P.P.? Even if current election results stand, despite challenges by the opposition, the C.P.P. is due for some soul-searching. The party is on notice that Cambodians expect substantial reforms regarding inequality, corruption and social justice. Addressing these issues will be a great challenge, as it will undermine the C.P.P.’s vested interests, no least its monopoly over state resources and institutions. But if the party refuses to budge it will soon face an even more vocal opposition, backed by an even more restless youth. However flawed or unfair this election, the Cambodian people have spoken.

Kheang Un is assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University.

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