March 22, 2023

Tag: Elections

Key Issues, Market

Cambodian opposition boycotts parliament to what end?

Author: Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University

This year’s Cambodian general election showed a surge of support for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), cutting the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) majority control over the National Assembly from 90 to 68 seats.

Sam Rainsy, President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), walks with his supporters during a protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 25 October 2013. The CNRP rejects the official results of the fifth national assembly elections, which declared Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party as winner. (Photo; AAP)

The CPP’s majority in this year’s election, the CNRP argues, would have disappeared in the absence of electoral fraud, principally the deletion of voters from the voter registration list. The CNRP has demanded an independent investigation into the alleged malpractice and has employed various strategies, including mass protests, a parliamentary boycott and diplomatic lobbying, to discredit the CPP’s claim to victory. It is obvious that an independent verification of the alleged fraud, let alone an attempt to overturn the results, is impossible within the current political context. The question then is why has the CNRP continued to pursue this strategy?

Firstly, because if the CNRP accepts the results of the election, or negotiates with the CPP through back channels, the CNRP’s credibility will be at risk. Its supporters, many of whom used to back the royalist FUNCINPEC party, will liken Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was seen as a self-interested politician — a state of affairs that erased FUNCINPEC and Prince Ranariddh from the Cambodian electoral map. Second, demonstrations are the best avenue for the CNRP to raise its visibility among the Cambodian public. Sam Rainsy has been well known for his bravery in standing up to the CPP, and recent protests indicated his determination to challenge the status quo. After all, Sam Rainsy rose to fame in Cambodia through organising protests that in the 1990s and early 2000s earned him the nickname the ‘CEO of demonstrations’.

The second strategy the CNRP took was boycotting the National Assembly in order to provoke a constitutional crisis, by denying the CPP the required quorum to form a new government. This strategy has not yielded any fruit so far in the absence of strong international pressure through US and EU trade sanctions, the suspension of aid, or votes to vacate the Cambodian seat at the United Nations — as was the case in 1997 following the violent ouster of Prince Norodom Ranariddh by then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. At the moment the situation in Cambodia is not so grave that it warrants such drastic action. Though corrupt and authoritarian, the Hun Sen government has been able to provide stability and sustained economic growth. Furthermore, the Hun Sen government has secured backing from China, which is ready to fill any vacuum created by the West.

Some analysts argue that the CNRP pursued the wrong strategy by boycotting the National Assembly. But participating in the National Assembly without gaining major leadership concessions from the CPP would be erroneous for the CNRP. Sam Rainsy in 2005 collaborated with the CPP to amend the constitution from the two-thirds majority required for the formation of government to a simple majority. Through that strategy Sam Rainsy succeeded in destroying Prince Ranariddh/FUNCINPEC’s political future. From 2005 onward, the battle would be between Sam Rainsy (and later Kem Sokha) and Hun Sen. The great showdown came with this election. The electoral contest, allegations of fraud notwithstanding, almost tipped towards the CNRP, which won 2.9 million votes compared to the CPP’s 3.2 million. But the 2005 constitutional amendment also rendered the CNRP’s minority status powerless in the National Assembly. For this reason the CNRP must be tough in its pressure for a power-sharing arrangement.

One might argue that the CNRP could lose face if it fails to extract concessions from the CPP, but this seems unlikely. The public knows the limits of the CNRP’s manoeuvring and the CPP’s monopoly on power. The real concern is that the public could become alienated from politics as they lose hope in all possibility of change. But even this seems far-fetched: Cambodia’s changing demography means that youth under the age of 25 will soon constitute the majority of voters. They will continue to support opposition efforts at political transformation if social injustice, nepotism, corruption and inequality remain high. Moreover, things have also changed in the countryside, the CPP’s traditional base. The CPP’s patronage-based material inducements and surveillance techniques are no longer sufficient to win rural votes. Voters want programmatic policy changes.

In the final analysis, this election proved to be a wake-up call for the CPP leadership, who now realise the need for reform on key issues like nepotism, land grabs, civil servant salaries and corruption. If the CPP fails to initiate meaningful reforms then it will face even more vocal opposition, backed by an even more restless youth. Such grievances will be strong during the next few elections and will become explosive if economic recession hits the country. If the outcome of this election pressures the CPP government to undertake significant positive reforms then it is a great victory for all Cambodians, and the CNRP should be proud of the fact that it was at the frontline of forcing these reforms.

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

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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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