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.