March 26, 2023

Tag: Cambodia politics

Key Issues, Market

The Cambodian monarchy must step back from politics

Author: Phoak Kung, University of Warwick

The death of King Norodom Sihanouk in October last year was a great loss to Cambodia. To the royal family, the King’s tremendous popularity is a double-edged sword. For many years, the monarchy has enjoyed overwhelming support and loyalty from the people without having to establish a new identity or produce any significant achievements. Now, King Sihanouk is gone, and no member of the royal family has anywhere near his stature.

The current King, Norodom Sihamoni, might not even be able to ensure the survival of the monarchy beyond his reign. There are problems he cannot control.

First, some prominent members of the royal family are actively involved in politics — at the expense of the monarchy’s reputation. They form political parties to compete for power and often use their royal connections to mobilise public support, as in the case of the Funcinpec Party. This diminishes respect for the monarchy. Politicians break promises, and the people distrust them for it. When people feel betrayed by royalist political parties, they can blame not only individual members of the royal family but the whole institution of the monarchy, including the King.

Second, some members of the Privy Council, which advises the King, want the new King to follow his father and exert control over government affairs. But they expect too much. King Sihamoni needs to establish his own identity as monarch. In any case, the King does not have the kind of power and privileges that his father enjoyed when he ruled the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and the constraints facing the monarchy are enormous. Worse still, when the King refuses to intervene, some Privy Councillors publicly complain that he lacks the courage to confront the government. It is time for the council to revise its strategy. Instead of picking fights with political parties, the King should focus on the ordinary people. The people, not political parties, will protect the monarchy.

Moreover, some provisions of the Cambodian Constitution make the future of the monarchy uncertain. There is no royal hierarchy in Cambodia; instead, political parties select the new king from a pool of candidates. The Constitution effectively allows the ruling party to choose its preferred candidate. The candidate must be from three royal bloodlines — the descendants of King Ang Duong, King Norodom and King Sisowath. This does not mean there is a large pool of potential candidates, however. And infighting between the three royal families further undermines the monarchy. The Constitution makes it almost impossible to know who will be first in line to the throne.

The decline or collapse of the monarchy is not good for anyone, including the ruling party. For over 20 years, Cambodian politics has been characterised by fierce and often violent competition between government and opposition. Political deadlock is constant. But Cambodia has muddled through, mainly because King Sihanouk — the ‘Father of National Reconciliation’ — helped mediate.

What will happen now he is gone? For example both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed victory in parliamentary elections in July 2013. In protest against the electoral result, the CNRP vowed to hold massive demonstrations nationwide, while the CPP deployed troops and heavily armoured vehicles into the capital city to prevent any possible clashes. A peaceful solution remains elusive. Both parties and the people still expect King Sihamoni to intervene. It is clear that the monarchy remains an integral part of Cambodia’s conflict resolution mechanism.

Cambodian politics has become a zero-sum game; the public, too, is politically divided. Conflict and stalemate will be the reality of Cambodian politics for years to come. It is almost impossible to assume that these problems can be sorted out smoothly and peacefully without the help of a strong, popular monarchy. Government institutions are not ready to arbitrate electoral conflicts independently.

The monarchy can help ensure stability, security and peace in Cambodia, but only if the King remains neutral. If he is seen to side with either the CPP or the CNRP, he will lose credibility and legitimacy in the public eyes. Both political parties must refrain from politicising the monarchy. It is possible to convince the people to accept a more passive and ceremonial monarchy as stipulated in the Constitution. Moreover, the King and members of the royal family must reach out to as many people as possible through both traditional media outlets and social media like Facebook and Twitter. The modern monarchy must be more engaging, adaptive and innovative if it wants to survive Cambodia’s tumultuous politics. The era of the God King is well and truly over.

Phoak Kung is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, the University of Warwick.

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Key Issues, Market

Hun Sen stands firm on election results

Author: Vannarith Chheang, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

After 25 years of experimenting with general elections, the Cambodian people have come to embrace a more democratic value set, and they are demanding greater respect for human rights and dignity.

The general election that took place on 28 July 2013 was a critical turning point in this process of democratisation. Three interrelated factors help to explain the political dynamics of the election: the country’s demographics; the prevalence of communications technology; and the shortcomings of the serving prime minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

About 3.5 million of Cambodia’s 9.6 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30; and of those, around 1.5 million are first-time voters. The majority of these young voters look beyond the country’s tragic past and are demanding concrete political and economic reforms, more freedom of expression, justice, inclusiveness, and good governance. Their aspirations are higher than their parents’ generation. Thanks to the rapid development of communications technology, especially through social media and smart phones, young voters can also receive updated information and actively exchange their views online.

Such a widespread proliferation of social media has broken down the effectiveness of state media control and propaganda in shaping public opinion on national issues. Although the CPP has been reasonably successful in maintaining peace and stability, economic growth, and infrastructure development, there are still serious shortcomings that are now more widely acknowledged. Public institutions have not satisfactorily responded to the needs and demands of the people. Systematic and chronic corruption, social injustice, land disputes and forced eviction, human rights violations, deforestation, national resource depletion, lack of transparency and accountability, and widening development gaps are among the key issues facing Cambodian society. Increasing numbers of voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling CPP by voting for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP focused its campaign on “change”, serious reforms of national institutions in order to have better checks and balances, improving the wellbeing of the people, especially those working in public institutions, factory workers, farmers and the elderly.

The official results of the election, released by the National Election Committee (NEC), show that the CPP won 68 seats and the CNRP won 55, out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. However, the CNRP has rejected the results and claims to have won 63 seats. It has called for the creation of an independent committee to investigate alleged election fraud. The CNRP has stated that ‘fifteen per cent of voters — about 1.2 to 1.3 million — were unable to vote because of list irregularities. There were also about 1 million ghost names on the voter list and about 200,000 duplicate names … That’s why we require the technical working group comprising the CNRP, the CPP, the UN, the NEC, local and international NGOs to investigate and make a report about these irregularities’.

However, the CPP has not accepted the proposal and has argued that all political parties must respect the official results issued by the NEC. After the failure of two rounds of negotiations between the two parties, the CPP went ahead to convene the opening of the National Assembly on 23 September — in line with the national constitution, which states that the first national assembly meeting shall be convened within 60 days of the election. The meeting was endorsed by the king, regardless of objections from civil society groups and the CNRP’s boycott.

The national assembly, with only the 68 CPP members sitting, voted to renew the prime minister’s five-year term. The first cabinet meeting was held on 25 September, with a promise to deepen reforms. Judicial reform, good governance, anti-corruption, and land and forest management are the top priorities for the next five-year reform program. Yet the opposition CNRP has denounced the creation of the new government, saying it was established by a ‘constitutional coup’. It continues to call for more protests and international pressure on the government. The United States and the European Union have both demanded a transparent review of election irregularities and reform of the electoral administration. Japan and Australia have also announced similar positions. But Hun Sen is standing firm.

China is among the few countries that congratulated the victory of the CPP. During a bilateral meeting between Premier Hun Sen and Premier Li Keqiang in Nanning on 2 September, Li confirmed Chinese support for Hun Sen. And in his visit to Cambodia on 21 August, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated: ‘We will support Cambodia ruling out external interference to pursue a development path in line with its own national conditions and the interest of the people’.

Thus, the future for Cambodian politics looks grim and highly uncertain. There is a serious lack of trust and confidence between the two political parties, and it will be difficult for both to return to negotiations and find a political breakthrough until there is a serious compromise from both sides. If a sustainable power-sharing arrangement cannot be found, the country could fall into a short-term political crisis. The implications of this would be a serious setback in the country’s economic development and poverty-reduction efforts — two areas that Cambodia has been struggling to improve over the years. In addition, it could also create space for more strategic and political competition among major powers in the region.

Vannarith Chheang is a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

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Key Issues, Market

What to expect from Cambodia’s 2013 election

Author: Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University

Cambodia will hold its fifth general election on 28 July, 20 years since its first UN-sponsored election in 1993. It is anticipated that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win the elections. But since the two main opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), there has been anxiety within the CPP over their likely margin of victory. 

The uneven playing field in Cambodia’s political landscape favours the CPP in a number of ways. First, the National Election Committee (NEC), which is under the control of the ruling party, has been suspected of tampering with the voter list. The National Democratic Institute found that one in ten voters have had their names removed from this year’s voter list —an irregularity that could potentially disenfranchise over a million voters.

Second is the unequal access to the media. The CPP has a monopoly over broadcast media, leaving the opposition parties to rely on the insufficiently short, officially allocated time on state-run television. The opposition parties’ campaigns have therefore been based on face-to-face meetings with their supporters, which can generate only limited exposure.

Third, the CPP has used its control over the state to mobilise resources and personnel for their election campaign. Working groups consisting of CPP-aligned government officials contribute toward sustaining the CPP’s political machine by engaging in the constant surveillance of civilians and developing infrastructure such as schools, roads and irrigation networks. The CPP working groups also offer small gifts such as cash, clothing and MSG during their visits to rural areas. During election campaigns, the CPP portrays its rural development schemes and gift giving as part of its culture of sharing while characterising the CNRP as poor and therefore unable to provide for rural villages. The impact of small gifts on winning votes could be limited, but close to 80 per cent of voters credited the ruling party for improvements to the country’s infrastructure and political stability. The CPP capitalised on that sentiment by emphasising that a CNRP victory could lead the country toward civil war—a threat that resonates with the older generation of voters, whose lives have been traumatised by Cambodia’s armed conflicts.

Finally, the ruling CPP has used its influence over the courts to harass top CNRP leaders. For example, CNRP’s vice president Kem Sokha was summoned to appear in court for allegedly denying the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, while CNRP’s president Sam Rainsy was until July 19 unable to participate in the election campaign because of an 11-year prison sentence for charges widely believed to be politically motivated. He was pardoned and allowed to return to campaign less than 10 days before the election following strong pressure from the United States, although it is still unclear if Rainsy is eligible to run for office.

It is widely believed that if there were an equal playing field the CPP’s margin of victory would substantially shrink.

The CNRP is the only major opposition party. In previous elections, the CPP rode to victory over a divided opposition, which had an unclear policy platform besides its strong anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. This year’s election campaign, however, sees the CNRP adopting a clear policy agenda, focusing on improving people’s livelihoods, while continuing to push on the Vietnamese issue. The CNRP’s support base lies in the urban population; in rural villagers whose livelihood have been affected by the land-grabbing crisis, in which the government leases land to companies without providing adequate compensation to those evicted; and in youths. Importantly, over 70 per cent of Cambodians are under the age of 30, many of whom have demonstrated their enthusiasm for the CNRP by campaigning for and participating in CNRP events, particularly in urban areas. However, the impact of the youth vote to the CNRP’s electoral outcome remains low for a number of reasons. The NEC has refused to increase the number of seats in urban areas, such as in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, despite increases in the urban population, depriving the CNRP of potentially gaining more seats in the National Assembly. And the law requiring people to cast their votes in their home villages could adversely affect the CNRP campaign, as a large number of youths have left their villages for employment in urban areas and overseas.

This year’s election has proceeded without violence, though with an unequal playing field favouring the CPP. With a united front, the CNRP hopes to upset the ruling CPP government. Such hopes remain an illusion given the country’s favourable economic conditions and political stability, as well as the CPP’s highly institutionalised networks that penetrate deeply into Cambodia’s political landscape. While the urban middle class might disapprove of rampant corruption and nepotism within the ruling CPP, they also benefit from the strong economic conditions the CPP has provided. Poverty and conservatism in rural areas have enabled the CPP to secure support from farmers using patronage gift-giving, political control and local infrastructure development. For the CNRP, unseating the CPP remains a distant dream under present circumstances. But if the CNRP can increase its seats from the combined current total of 29 (out of the possible 123), this achievement will generate momentum for the opposition in the future.

Kheang Un is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

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