Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have never shied away from incredible claims about their opposition party’s popularity. If a genuine election were ever held, they have said repeatedly over the past few years, they would decimate the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Sokha even predicted a doubling of the opposition’s vote at Sunday’s commune elections – the first under the new elections body it helped create – to 60 percent from 30 percent in 2012, while Rainsy late last year issued his own very specific forecast for Sunday.
The opposition would win 4.26 million votes to the CPP’s 2.61 million – 56 percent to 34 percent – Rainsy’s forecast said, after millions of fake names were deleted from the voter list and millions more of the disenfranchised were added during last year’s re-enrolments.
So when opposition spokesman Yim Sovann emerged from the party’s headquarters late on Sunday night with what should have been good news – that the party had won almost 500 communes, compared to just 40 in 2012 – the focus instead shifted to what he said was the party’s likely nationwide popular vote: 46 percent.
With Sovann saying it appeared the CPP had won, no one was more more amused than Prime Minister Hun Sen, who claimed the CPP had won 51 percent of the vote, and yesterday mocked those who had taken Sokha and Rainsy’s hopes for this year and next year’s elections seriously.
“There were some people who came out and claimed that the CPP [would] lose this election. These were truly people who knew only one tree, and did not know about the whole forest,” Hun Sen wrote on Facebook alongside selfies he took while playing golf.
“They campaigned saying that in 2017 they would take the communes and the Senate and in 2018 would take the Assembly,” he said, arguing that Sunday’s results “already clearly confirm that the CPP will be the party that has the most seats in the Assembly”.
The election monitoring coalition the Situation Room, meanwhile, issued its own projected break-down of the popular vote yesterday, with the CPP claiming 48 percent to the opposition’s 45, though results are still incomplete. Voter turnout was estimated to be 86 percent.
Yet it is far from clear that the CPP’s victory over the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Sunday will translate into another victory at the July 2018 national election, even if some opposition supporters are perturbed that the party had failed at its ambitious objectives.
“Of course, if the CNRP set folks up to expect 60 percent of the vote and has not cleared even a majority, things can look disappointing. So much of this is about managing expectations,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Ear, who wrote Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said he had thought 40 percent at the commune elections, where the CPP is considered to have an advantage, was what the CNRP had needed to indicate it could win next year.
In that regard, Ear said, and comparing Sunday’s results with 2012, the CNRP was the real winner.
“There’s no question about it,” he said. “The CPP went from nearly 62 percent of the vote down to 51 percent; this is an 11 percentage point decrease. The CNRP went from a combined nearly 31 percent of the vote to 46 percent of the vote, a 15 percentage point increase.”
Rainsy and Sokha formed the CNRP a month after their two parties won only 30 percent of vote at the June 2012 commune elections and then at the July 2013 national election only narrowly lost, winning 44.5 percent in an election they said was marred by fraud.
The CNRP’s best performances on Sunday’s vote were also in provinces that have the largest representation in the 123-seat National Assembly – like Kampong Cham, where it won majorities in 76 of the 109 communes, according to unofficial preliminary results.
Ten seats will be up for grabs there next year. The CNRP also won 54 communes to the CPP’s 51 in Phnom Penh – the largest National Assembly constituency, with 12 seats – and in Battambang went from zero communes to 48 against the CPP’s 54. Battambang has eight Assembly seats.
The fact the CNRP won almost 500 communes this time after only 40 in 2012, and had increased its total vote count compared to 2013, was significant, said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia scholar at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy.
“The opposition finally has made a serious dent in CPP dominance of the communes – a major pillar of the ruling party’s power,” Ciorciari said. “CPP supporters are likely breathing a sigh of relief after winning the popular vote, but the trend lines favour the opposition.”
With the commune election now over, he said, Hun Sen and his allies and rivals in the CPP would now inevitably start strategising for the national election in a year – with the big question being what the 38-year-old government reads into Sunday’s results.
“The CPP party faithful will press the prime minister to forestall further CNRP gains in 2018, but it’s less clear what lessons they will draw from these election results,” Ciorciari said. “Some will argue for sterner measures, but others may conclude that heavy-handed tactics have backfired and advocate for a change of tack.”
However, CPP spokesman Suos Yara said there was little the ruling party would need to change before July 2018, with Sunday’s commune election results indicating that that it should continue with its development of the country and not worry about the CNRP.
“They wanted to control 75 percent” of Cambodia’s now-1,646 communes, Yara said, supplying a goal for the CNRP higher even than Sokha’s, before echoing Hun Sen’s claims their failure to reach a majority showed their hopes at next year’s election were low.
The idea that the CNRP would have an easier time at the national election than in the commune elections was baseless, the spokesman said. “It’s just 400 communes [that they won], and that’s nothing wonderful. This is just a boast – it’s not necessary to care.”
Kem Monovithya, the eldest daughter of the opposition leader and the CNRP’s deputy head of public affairs, said the party remained “encouraged” by Sunday’s results even though the vote had come in below their goals, and that the party would be studying why.
“The CNRP undeniably made significant, historical gains today, weakening our opponent’s grassroots standing, and increasing overall popular support even from 2013,” Monovithya said. “Whenever you take seats from your opponent, that’s a victory.”
“Going to 2018, we are studying what external and internal factors impact these results, and will develop strategies based on those findings,” she said.
Yet whatever the CNRP’s findings about its wins and losses on Sunday, the CPP will still inevitably go into the 2018 election with a far bigger arsenal than the opposition with its de facto control of the nation’s media, military and almost every state institution.
“The election was not free and fair,” Lee Morgenbesser, who researches elections under authoritarian regimes at Australia’s Griffith University, said of Sunday’s vote. “The fact the CNRP improved its performance under such conditions speaks volumes.”
Morgenbesser said it was too early to speculate about 2018 but that the attacks on the CNRP in the year before the commune elections may prove instructive.
“Once you take the entire electoral cycle into consideration [rather than just a convenient snapshot of it] you can see significant problems,” he said. “This includes issues pertaining to the legal framework, logistics and security, observers and accreditation, parties financing, and media access, to name but a few.”
Ear, the Aid Dependence in Cambodia author, said some in the CNRP might nevertheless now be excited.
“2018 is well within striking distance for the CNRP,” Ear said, advising the opposition party optimism but caution. “Provided it is not dissolved de facto or de jure before then, it has a real shot at ending CPP rule in Cambodia.”