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Sophal Ear (on screen), Sebastian Strangio (centre right) and Courtney Weatherby (right) analyse Cambodia’s 2017 commune elections at a panel organised by the Stimson Center last week in Washington, DC. Photo supplied
Sophal Ear (on screen), Sebastian Strangio (centre right) and Courtney Weatherby (right) analyse Cambodia’s 2017 commune elections at a panel organised by the Stimson Center last week in Washington, DC. Photo supplied

With CNRP gains come risks: panel

The mixed results of the June 4 commune elections may have allowed both major parties to save face, but the opposition’s large gains show it has a serious chance of winning next year’s national election – and that could attract violent backlash from the government, long-time observers told a forum in Washington last week.

The Cambodian People’s Party on June 4 took 51 percent of the vote to the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s roughly 44 percent, according to the preliminary results, winning 71 percent of communes – figures down from its 61-to-30 percent victory in 2012, when it took 97 percent of the communes.

Hosted by the Stimson Center – a nonpartisan research group focussed on security – authors Sebastian Strangio and Sophal Ear, and researcher Courtney Weatherby, told the Thursday evening forum that the unprecedented gains by the opposition put Cambodia in uncharted territory after the vote. Both Strangio and Ear, who authored Hun Sen’s Cambodia and Aid Dependence in Cambodia, respectively, told the forum that the results had provided the leaders of both parties with much of what they wanted ahead of the July 2018 national election.

“Part of the reason for this is that these elections don’t significantly affect the distribution of political power in Cambodia,” Strangio said, noting that the commune councils had relatively little power but that the results could be publicly spun as a success by both parties.

“For Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, this election showed for the first time that he can lead the party into a major election and get good results,” Strangio said. “He’s had the challenge of proving he’s the right guy to lead the party through to the national elections next year, and I think he got the results he needs.”

“For the CPP, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the election essentially preserved the margin of victory they had in the popular vote at the 2013 national election,” he said. “I think for Hun Sen, this will instil confidence that the party can scrape through the 2018 national election with a similar margin of victory.”

Ear, who joined the forum via Skype from Los Angeles, said it was noteworthy that even after three years of attacks on the CNRP, these elections were the first time the CPP did not win almost every commune council – saying the numbers were themselves an important indicator, regardless of the councils’ relative political impotence.

“I mean, in 2002 you had the CPP claiming 1,598 commune chiefs – nearly 99 percent of all communes. [It was] pretty much the same in 2007 – they claimed seven fewer commune chiefs, with 1,591, while the Sam Rainsy Party claimed 28,” Ear said.

“In 2012, the results were essentially the same again, except that the Human Rights Party took some commune chief seats from the Sam Rainsy Party. So there’s been very little evolution in terms of the commune council picture, really – up until this year.”

With the CNRP showing last week it could eat into the CPP’s vote – even at a local vote, where it has historically struggled – “things changed dramatically”, Ear said, warning the CPP not to read too much into its larger share of the popular vote.

The CNRP itself has argued that many issues that do not play at commune elections will come to the fore next year, and Weatherby, a Stimson researcher, told the forum that the CPP would now be hoping to neutralise many of those issues, which cost it at the 2013 national election.

“The CPP lost a number of seats in the National Assembly [then], and while there are many reasons for this – obviously the CNRP’s policies on human rights, on corruption, on economic development, are some of the main attractors – an underlying secondary factor in this is environmental degradation,” Weatherby said.

She said issues like environmentally damaging development projects – “which, in Cambodia is tied very closely to perceptions of corruption” – would become important next year, with many unlikely to blame their local CPP commune chiefs for such issues, even as the CNRP has landed blows against the national government.

“At the same time, we also saw some shifts in the Cambodian People’s Party in the way they are identifying themselves on this issue. After the 2013 election, with those losses, Hun Sen directly appointed Say Sam Al to the Ministry of Environment,” Weatherby said.

The premier gave the CPP’s youngest new minister, she explained, “a mandate saying essentially: ‘We need to burnish our credentials on this issue; it’s clear that the CNRP is outperforming us, [and] it’s clear there’s a lot of opportunities to improve’.”

Strangio said the CNRP’s successes in these areas would only give it added confidence about its performance in last week’s vote, but argued that more specific issues like rampant deforestation and land-grabbing would probably play even larger roles.

“That has figured prominently in the CNRP’s campaigns,” Strangio said.

He added that the CPP had struggled with people in the party’s patronage structures enriching themselves on such unpopular practices, even as they have made some public steps to enact reforms.

“They have been only very partially successful, I would say, up to this point, because the inertia of the patronage state is such that it requires ever greater resources of one kind or another in order to grease the wheels and to renew those bonds of loyalty,” he said.

It was seemingly easier, Strangio said, to carry the stick rather than dangle carrots – and he noted Defence Minister Tea Banh’s threat last month to beat opposition protesters “until their teeth come out”, and Hun Sen’s pledge on May 29 to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” if necessary to maintain the stability of the country.

Ear said that the last threat was particularly chilling given next month’s 20th anniversary of the factional fighting in Phnom Penh, during which forces loyal to Hun Sen defeated those loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh and ousted him as the elected first prime minister.

“The ‘100 to 200 people’ that would be eliminated, I think that was a direct comparison to 1997, when the last violent incidents happened in which about 100 to 200 people were killed,” Ear said, noting that Hun Sen could be very deliberate with his speeches. “It’s a reminder – and I think the prime minister even mentioned 1997, in case anyone was wondering, ‘What’s he talking about with the 100 to 200 people?’”

Asked to extrapolate the commune election results to predict whether the CNRP could win the July 2018 national election – if it were allowed to take over – Strangio said that he believed the answer had become clear over recent months. “They’re really two separate questions – can the CNRP win an election, and would the CPP relinquish power? On the former question, there’s every indication that they can; on the latter question, there’s every indication that they won’t,” Strangio said.

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