When the National Assembly holds its first session sometime within the next two months, it will resemble nothing seen before.
Thanks to a series of coalitions between Funcinpec and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party starting from the first election in 1993, there has never been a vibrant two-party system. Over 20 years, the CPP steadily upped its number of seats, royalist Funcinpec faded, and the opposition – though serviceable – never had the numbers to play a vibrant role.
That may soon change.
To be sure, the CPP retains a majority, allowing it to tip the vote on nearly every matter save constitutional amendments; it retains control of government institutions and remains a powerful presence.
But if it has any hope of surviving as a party, analysts said yesterday, it will have to follow the opposition’s lead and change.
The preliminary results “suggest that Prime Minister Hun Sen may well have to adjust some of his time-honoured, ageing practices (payola, lawsuits, schools in his name) to fit what is clearly a slight shift in the predicted ‘indifference’ of Cambodians to politics,” scholar David Chandler said.
“I suspect that there is more rural discontent with the CPP, expressed in secret ballots, than Hun Sen expected.”
Indeed, while the party spent the campaign period touting stability and offering shopworn promises of new roads, schools and pagodas to come – there are indications such platforms were meaningless to many.
Though the ruling party retained a sound majority of the National Assembly – early figures put it at 68 to 55 seats – they barely squeaked by in the popular vote. There, the party took only 48.5 per cent of the vote to the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s 44.4 per cent, according to figures from Transparency International.
The CPP scored big by winning all nine one-seat provinces, not by pleasing the vast amount of voters.
All of which has left itin a precarious position if it has any hope of re-establishing their dominance by the time the 2017 commune elections roll around.
“They don’t want to face a challenge again in the next election; they realise their leadership style, their reforms, their social development are not meeting the needs of the people,” said political analyst Kem Ley who, like Chandler, predicted that “they will reconsider their policy by including the CNRP policy in the next five years”.
After the 2003 elections saw neither Funcinpec nor the CPP secure a necessary two-thirds majority, a stalemate persisted for a record 11 months.
The coalition government that was eventually secured undertook a massive revision to the constitution, including changing the majority needed to form a government to a simple 50 per cent plus one.
Today, two-thirds is required for constitutional amendments, but most other decisions need only a simple majority.
Though it is not necessary, ideally, the two parties would seek a middle ground that allowed for vibrant opposition involvement even as the CPP retained power.
But though a power-share could be the key to a more unified, productive government, said analysts, neither party seems keen to play ball.
Speaking at a press conference yesterday, National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said the results demonstrated there was no need for a political concession.
“I cannot say, but according to the constitution, the CPP has the right to receive the position [all nine chairs of the permanent committee], because we have 68 seats. We have a majority, 50 plus one, and if there will be a political concession of power sharing from the three Samdechs and leaders of the Standing Committee of the CPP, this is dependent on the behaviour of the opposition party,” Vun said.
It appears unlikely that after 15 years of bitter animosity, the ruling and opposition parties could easily mend differences and come together.
After announcing that the CNRP did not recognise the election’s outcome and was calling for an independent investigation of the vote, president Sam Rainsy laid out his position in no uncertain terms.
“We are not asking this in order to bargain positions in the government; we are not interested,” he said.
But though they can make noisy allegations, ultimately their leverage is minimal, historian Milton Osborne said.
“It is important to recognise that the government remains in power with a comfortable, if reduced majority,” he said. “It controls the forces of order and to a large degree the public service. And it would be lacking in realism to think Hun Sen and his associates will not seek to find ways to maintain their grip on power, if necessary by changed policies.”
Heads may roll
Almost certainly, those changed policies will be aimed inwards as well as out.
Some 24 hours after the preliminary election results were released by the ruling party, Hun Sen has yet to be seen. The highest-ranking members, meanwhile, have been unusually tight-lipped, busy in meetings that are possibly deciding the fate of the party.
Without a doubt, predicted political scientist Carlyle Thayer, “there have to be internal recriminations, though they may take a while to play out”.
“It’s going to be a real test whether the CPP can hold it together or whether it becomes a more fractious institution.”
Vun, for his part, yesterday sought to present the face of a party united, saying the election had “put Cambodia on the right track to be the same as the democratic countries around the world”.
“In my point of view, it is necessary to have strong participation of the opposition political party, particularly in the National Assembly,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA AND CHHAY CHANNYDA