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Gambit by CNRP an ‘all-in’ move

Analysis

In its switch to a strategy of nonstop demonstrations calling for a new election, the opposition party has made a calculated decision to go “all-in” and toughen its stance in a bid to ramp up domestic pressure on the ruling party, political analysts said yesterday.

Since the July 28 poll, the Cambodia National Rescue Party has pushed for an independent probe into election irregularities, a request that the government and Cambodian People’s Party have continuously rejected, and which the international community has been unwilling to back with more than words.

As a result, the CNRP is now responding to a growing chorus of supporters and members who believe it has “been too soft in dealing with the CPP”, Phoak Kung, a researcher at Britain’s University of Warwick, said.

“The emerging consensus (at least within the circle of the opposition) is that they need to take a tougher stance in order to make the CPP concede [to] their demands,” Kung, whose research focuses on democratic reforms in Cambodia, said.

CNRP public affairs head Mu Sochua told the Post yesterday that the release of a comprehensive report by a group of election watchdogs known as the Election Reform Alliance (ERA) has emboldened the opposition by providing “very clear evidence of massive fraud”.

“They [the CPP] can’t keep denying it. We can’t accept that,” Sochua said.

“[We need] election reforms for a re-election in 2014, [and] we have to use the ERA report as the base for electoral reform [instead of the investigation].”

But according to Kung, even though continuous protests may give the CNRP extra leverage to force concessions out of the ruling party, “leaders need to be realistic” about what they can get.

“There’s a threshold that the CPP cannot go beyond, such as re-election, the post of the National Assembly president and investigations into irregularities. The current deadlock can only be solved through dialogue and compromise,” he said.

Still, the CNRP believes it has a historic opportunity to change Cambodian politics and has thus “doubled down on using protests as the only viable political weapon for change”, Peter Tan Keo, an independent political analyst, said.

“Nothing else matters to the party at this point. They are going all-in. My belief is that the CNRP is riding this ‘wave of change’ to the very end,” he said.

“The CNRP, or any opposition for that matter, may never again get this opportunity.”

Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Prime Minister Hun Sen is likely to only make “minimal concessions” despite pressure from all sides, including close allies.

A December 4 report by Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua featured unprecedented criticisms of the government and questioned Hun Sen’s political will to carry out proposed reforms.

“Once Hun Sen embarks on a limited program of political reform, this will ease pressures from within the CPP and from the international community, including China,” Thayer said in an email.

“The opposition faces the conundrum of whether to support these reforms or continue to stand outside the process and dismiss all reforms as meaningless .…Tthe opposition is likely to be unrelenting and uncompromising because limited reforms will only entrench the Hun Sen regime in power.”

While authorities at recent demonstrations have allowed protesters to march and demonstrate peacefully, Thayer added that CNRP leader Sam Rainsy might be hoping for a stronger response.

“I have always felt that Sam Rainsy was hoping for an overreaction by security authorities to generate martyrs for his movement. Any overreaction would have galvanized domestic support … and swelled his ranks.”

According to political researcher Kem Ley, protesters could face a bloody crackdown if the demonstrations gather momentum and swell in size.

“If there is no agreement between the two parties [on how to organise a new election or a new National Assembly] in a secret way, I think the armed forces will crack down on the demonstrators,” he said.

Ley added that the best outcome would be an agreement for a new election in one or two years’ time, a timeframe mentioned by Interior Minister Sar Kheng last week as he told reporters a snap election was impossible.

Although comparisons between the protest movements in Cambodia and Thailand have been made in recent weeks, most prominently by Rainsy, the political dynamic in the two countries is very different, said John Ciorciari, Cambodia watcher and public policy professor at the University of Michigan.

“Following the Thai opposition’s model of extended protest could generate added international attention and domestic sympathy for the protesters, especially if the authorities use violence in response to a perceived escalation,” he said.

“[But] unlike the Thai opposition, which has powerful friends in the military, judiciary and other parts of the government, the CNRP faces an incumbent party with a relatively firm grip on the security forces, the courts and other key nodes of power.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA

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