The Cambodian People’s Party is poised to sweep every single elected Senate seat in upcoming elections in February, despite its assurances that multiparty democracy is thriving after the dissolution of the main opposition party.
According to a Post analysis, if voting breaks down along party lines in the February 25 indirect ballot – in which only commune councillors and National Assembly members participate – the ruling party will win all of the Senate’s 58 elected seats, despite three other parties being in contention.
The dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s only viable opposition – in November led to the redistribution of its 5,007 commune council and 55 National Assembly seats earlier this month.
The vast majority of the commune positions were given to the CPP, and the party now controls all but one of the country’s 1,646 communes and claims 95 percent of all councillors. In the National Assembly, laws hastily amended by the ruling party redistributed 44 of the CNRP’s 55 seats to three minor parties, which won less than 5 percent of the vote between them in 2013. The remaining 11 went to the CPP, which now holds 79 seats in the 123 seat assembly.
Since the redistribution, government and ruling party officials, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, have assured Cambodians that the presence of smaller parties in government means multiparty democracy will be preserved.
“The government will commit to protecting the multiparty democracy process, and the approaching election will be arranged by the [National Election Committee], which is an independent unit,” Hun Sen said in a televised address hours after the CNRP’s dissolution.
In the ensuing days, however, three CNRP appointees to the NEC resigned in protest and were replaced by two picks from minor parties in the assembly, and one with links to the CPP, tilting the body in the ruling party’s favour.
While the Senate is largely seen as a rubber-stamp body, the expected results are further indication of the near-total extent of the CPP’s grip on the levers of power with the main opposition party gone. Currently, there are 11 non-CPP Senators, all from the Candlelight Party – the rebranded remnants of the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP in 2012.
Cambodia’s 24 provinces and Phnom Penh are divided into eight voting regions that will send a combined 58 Senators to the capital. The three smaller contenders in February’s poll – Funcinpec, Khmer National United Party (KNUP) and Cambodian Youth Party (CYP) – have a miniscule number of officials spread across these voting regions, making it near impossible to surpass the CPP’s expected vote tally.
For example. in Region 4 – which includes Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Pailin, Oddar Meanchey – the CPP holds 2,049 votes. Funcinpec, its closest competitor in the region, holds just 87.
Applying the Senate seat allocation formula, Funcinpec stands no chance of even coming close to the threshold required to win a Senate seat. In fact, the only way it could take a seat in the region is if it were to receive an infusion of 108 votes from other parties, including at least 27 from the CPP.
Aside from cross-party votes from CPP voters, the only way smaller parties could possibly win seats in the Senate is if their candidates are chosen for the two seats appointed by the King, or the two appointed by the CPP-dominated National Assembly.
Still, CPP Senator Mam Bunneang insisted that the fact that four parties were eligible to contest the elections showed that multiparty democratic principles were being followed. He declined to comment on The Post’s calculations except to say that the CPP will indeed get a majority of seats.
“On average, we will get the majority. But we are not sure how many we will get because we have not yet voted,” he said.
Bunneang said councillors were free to vote for whoever they wanted with no orders from the party.
Spokesmen for the KNUP and Funcinpec could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On Monday, CYP President Pich Sros said it was his party’s duty to contest every possible election, despite having only three voting councillors.
“If we drop out of the chance to compete, we should not have formed the party,” he said.
Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College, said if the CPP were to sweep the Senate elections it would be another “nail in Cambodia’s democratic coffin”.
He also said it was possible that cross-party voting would occur to create a veneer of competition, but that attempts to paint the process as democratic would be futile.
“[The CPP] do like to put lipstick on a pig, but in the end, it’s still a pig. The cross voting would be the lipstick,” said Sophal, who is also author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.
Political commentator Meas Nee said the CPP’s amendments to the National Assembly Election Law allowed for the participation of other parties to lend the appearance of democratic pluralism, an image they sought to project.
The ruling party, however, may not have realised how much it could skew the Senate’s composition when they amended the commune election laws to award themselves the crucial commune council positions won by the CNRP, he added.
“I am sure they care [about the composition] and they expected it to be multiple parties, but CPP also had an ambition to control the commune council seats,” Nee said.