Four years ago, when the opposition snatched Kampong Cham away from the ruling party in 2013 national elections, it hinted at a deeper shift taking place in what was then the Kingdom’s most populous province.
But thanks to the splitting of the province into Kampong Cham and the newly formed Tbong Khmum in 2014, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party may be poised to benefit from a very literal change in the electoral landscape come 2018.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party took Kampong Cham in a landslide at this year’s commune elections, cementing its status as a veritable opposition stronghold.
But an analysis of National Election Committee figures shows that thanks to the reallocation of seats to Tbong Khmum, the CPP would reverse the CNRP’s 2013 triumph should this year’s commune results be repeated at the national elections. The reversal, observers say, hints at what some have suspected since the province was first divided: gerrymandering.
In the 2013 national elections, the opposition party claimed an unprecedented 10 parliamentary seats to the CPP’s eight in the then-united Kampong Cham. If the provinces were still combined, the share of votes it won at this year’s commune elections would translate to a dead heat of nine seats each in the national poll. But thanks to the redistribution of seats across the two new provinces, the CPP looks set to take 10 of those 18 seats – five in each province.
Looking at the numbers, it appears the CPP effectively cut off the dead limb of the opposition-leaning Kampong Cham, instead pouring its efforts into shaping the new Tbong Khmum, which lies east of the Mekong River, into a CPP stronghold.
Political analyst Meas Ny said he had no doubt the CPP had considered the political ramifications of the divide.
“I think we all agree in principle the dividing of Tbong Khmum in the first place could be part of political manipulation,” he said.
Ny said dealing with a smaller chunk of the province made it easier to “influence and manipulate”, and pointed out there were potentially thousands of new provincial jobs for CPP supporters, brought in by government to help develop the province.
“The ruling party always thinks carefully before they make something new; there is always some political reason,” he said.
As the results were coming into focus on election night, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan noted that while his party had lost the “battlefield” of Kampong Cham, “in Tbong Khmum, we still keep our belt”.
He denied yesterday that the split was politically motivated.
“We did not keep it whole because in Kampong Cham there were many more people than in other provinces, therefore it was cut in order to manage the work effectively,” he said.
However, Koul Panha and Sam Kuntheamy, from election watchdogs Comfrel and Nicfec, respectively, also maintained the division was political, rather than administrative.
Still, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said he expected his party would take a higher percentage of votes nationwide at the national elections than in this month’s poll, anticipating a bump of about 15 percent.
“Based on our experience … we expect in 2018 we will get 56 to 60 percent [of the vote],” he said.
In the 2012 commune elections, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party – the two groups that later merged to form the CNRP – took 12 communes, with about 30 percent of the popular vote. In the 2013 national elections, the combined opposition took nearly 52 percent – an increase of 22 percent.
Of the 12 communes the opposition won in 2012, eight remained in the newly divided Kampong Cham, with the opposition retaining six of those this year, according to preliminary results. The CNRP took 74 communes across the province this month, to the CPP’s 35.
Of the four opposition communes that became part of Tbong Khmum province, the opposition lost two. The CPP, meanwhile, handily took Tbong Khmum as a whole, winning 46 communes to the opposition’s 18.
The CNRP’s most significant loss, in terms of votes, was Preah Theat, where the opposition beat the CPP by more than 1,200 votes when the commune belonged to Kampong Cham in 2012. This year, with Preah Theat now in Tbong Khmum, the CPP inverted that result, trouncing the CNRP by more than 1,200 votes.
Ngoan Kimheang, a CPP commune councillor-elect in Preah Theat, said the key to the CPP success was humility.
“The key factor is that we visit them at their home and we go and apologise to them. In the past we have made mistakes and we were careless, therefore the vote was going down,” Kimheang said.
The commune lies in O’Reang-ou district, where the CPP working group is headed by Environment Minister Say Samal, whom Kimheang praised profusely for their electoral gains.
“We owe a huge gratitude to him, without him we would have collapsed. With his management, we gained success. He gained [the commune] back for the party,” he said. Samal, reached yesterday, declined to comment.
But Bak Sreng, a CNRP commune councillor in Preat Theat, said the victory came down to the amount of riel dished out.
“We lost in Preah Theat commune because [the CPP] used a lot of money,” he said. “It is injustice . . . The villages [where the CPP] loses, it will give money to those villagers.”
Meanwhile, some of the staunchly CPP communes that the party managed to hold in the new Kampong Cham appear to be slipping. Of the four communes where the party dominated in 2012 – winning authoritatively enough to take the top three council positions – the two that remained in Kampong Cham saw slimmer margins of victory this year. In the two that went to Tbong Khmum, however, the CPP widened its already substantial lead.
Some closer communes, however, have already slipped through their grasp. Of the 31 communes where the CPP took the two top commune positions in 2012, the CNRP grabbed 12 this year, narrowly missing out on a 13th in Khvet Thom by just 10 votes.
Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns