When the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party in mid-2012, few expected its progeny, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to make the political gains it did at the ballot box 12 months later.
With the two opposition parties holding a combined 29 National Assembly seats compared to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s 90, predictions abounded that this year’s national election, on July 28, would be a foregone conclusion, one that would result in the CPP further tightening its iron-clad grip on power.
Although the CPP was awarded victory, it was with a slim 13-seat margin.
The return of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s ability to spread its message through social media and the rise of youth voters were just some of the things that led to the tight battle.
Amid stories of bombs outside the National Assembly and people allegedly being paid to campaign for the CPP, the opposition’s refusal to accept the official result ensured that the election continued to dominate news coverage right through the very end of the year.
Of hundreds of stories about the election in the Post in 2013, the first, on January 2, mentioned the CNRP’s election promise of a $150 minimum garment wage.
While the opposition found it difficult early on to make its voice heard – the National Election Committee said in January that it didn’t have time to meet about election procedures – garment workers were listening and would prove a key demographic throughout the year.
While election campaigning wasn’t officially due until late June, it seemed to get off to an early start. In March, Hun Sen used public addresses to warn villagers that initiatives such as his land-titling scheme would simply disappear if people didn’t re-elect him. As the election drew closer, he warned of civil war if his party lost.
By May, however, all focus was on CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha, who was accused by the government of saying in a speech that the Vietnamese had “staged” the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 torture centre.
A firestorm followed, as Hun Sen publicly criticised Sokha and a mass protest against him was organised by S-21 survivor Chum Mey, 83.
“I regret that politicians took a chance to take my words . . . exaggerating them to deceive the public,” Sokha said at the time.
In early June, opposition lawmakers were stripped of their parliamentary status for having changed parties – from the HRP or SRP to the CNRP – a punishment that the opposition and some analysts said was unconstitutional.
Days later, the government passed a controversial draft law making it illegal to deny Khmer Rouge crimes.
Sokha came under more heat weeks later when the government’s press unit posted on its website an interview with a woman purporting to be his estranged mistress. In response, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said allegations made against Sokha were “fabricated”.
But it wasn’t too long before the limelight would shift in Rainsy’s direction.
On July 12, King Norodom Sihamoni officially pardoned the CNRP leader, who had spent four years living abroad to avoid a widely derided prison term.
“[T]he mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia, as promised in the Paris Peace Agreements, and does not advance NEC reform,” he said.
But it certainly energised his support base and breathed new life into the election.
More than 100,000 people lined the streets to greet Rainsy on July 19 when he arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport. “I promise to rescue the country with our policies,” he told supporters at Freedom Park that afternoon.
Just six days later – and three days before the election – Rainsy was refused candidacy.
To the polls
On July 28, Hun Sen, who had vowed to stay silent for a month before the election, cast his vote in Kandal province as his fellow lawmakers predicted a big win for the CPP.
Throughout the day, the vote was marred by claims of widespread irregularities. Monitors warned that upwards of 1 million people may have been left off the voter list.
Polling stations were mostly calm, but isolated incidents of violence occurred, including the targeting of people in Prey Veng thought to be Vietnamese.
In the capital’s Meanchey district, an angry mob alleging ballot fraud trashed police vehicles and detained a polling official.
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith declared that night that the CPP had won, 68 seats to the opposition’s 55 – the exact figures that the NEC confirmed as official some weeks later.
The CNRP rejected the results the morning after the election.
“Fifteen per cent of voters — about 1.2 to 1.3 million — were unable to vote because of list irregularities,” Rainsy said as he called for an investigation involving the UN.
Rainsy later claimed the CNRP had evidence that it had won 63 seats, a figure he believed could increase to 90 seats if polling irregularities were ironed out.
The CNRP has yet to produce documents supporting the claim.
Taking it to the streets
In early August, a military official told the Post that about 100 members from each unit of the armed forces, military police and national police had been deployed to the capital to “ensure political stability
At about this time, King Sihamoni issued a rare public statement calling for the two parties to reach a “peaceful” resolution. He later spent some weeks in China for medical treatment, causing some to fear violence in his absence.
But that did not occur until after his return in September. By then, the CNRP was drawing thousands of people to mass demonstrations. While a three-day rally at Freedom Park remained peaceful, police blocked major roads in the capital with razor-wire barriers, heightening tensions and restricting movement.
One man was shot dead by police and others received bullet wounds when clashes broke out between protesters and police at the Kbal Thnal overpass on September 15. The shooting drew widespread condemnation.
Bilateral discussions over the deadlock were held infrequently and were largely fruitless. The CNRP was adamant it would not enter into a coalition, while the government conceded it was willing to make some reforms – which are yet to happen.
Days before he was due to swear in elected lawmakers, King Sihamoni urged the CNRP not to boycott the National Assembly. Rainsy, however, stood firm.
“Their party controls the state and society like in the communist era,” he said at the time. “This is . . . a violation of the Paris [Peace] Agreement.”
The Paris accord was something the CNRP would refer to again during mass demonstrations. And as such rallies have became a daily ritual in Freedom Park, crowds have grown.
By year’s end, the dominant demographic at the protests had become garment workers striking over minimum wages.
The two parties appear headed for talks, perhaps this week, but 2013 ends with only one party’s lawmakers in the National Assembly.
Election coverage this year has continually shown, though, that politics in Cambodia is now very much a two-horse race.