Promises, promises: Can Hun Sen deliver on his vows?
Cambodian leader's ruling CPP is blatantly campaigning on banned CNRP's previous policies ahead of a virtually uncontested July 29 election
When tens of thousands of Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) supporters took part in a motorcade march through Phnom Penh on July 22, many in the assembled crowd expected a handout for their participation.
Some of the flag-waving supporters told Asia Times that they were given US$2.50 to participate in the roving colorful rally. Tuk-tuk drivers who provided transport for the motorcade received at least US$10, they said.
None of this, of course, was unusual, for paying rally-goers has long been de rigueur on Cambodia’s election campaign trails. What is new, however, is the long-ruling CPP’s shift towards policy promises targeting specific segments of the electorate.
Many of those campaign vows, including promises to lift the country’s influential garment worker constituency, are carbon copies of the policies promised by the ex-opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court last November.
For years, the CPP campaigned on the simple couplet of social stability and economic growth, resonant messages after decades of debilitating civil war. It will “protect peace, security, stability and public order” while turning Cambodia into “a more prosperous country,” Prime Minister Hun Sen affirmed earlier this month.
That message still rings true with an elder generation that recalls the country’s painful past. “I want a safe country,” said one elderly CPP rally participant. “I lived [under] the Khmer Rouge and I don’t want civil war again,” added his wife.
In the run-up to the July 29 election, it’s clear that some Cambodians believe the CPP-led government when it says the now dissolved CNRP, was trying to foment a so-called “color revolution” and topple Hun Sen from power.
Now in exile, CNRP politicians have called for a nationwide electoral boycott in the hope that low voter turnout will delegitimize the CPP’s almost certain victory against a cast of 19 small parties with no history of electoral success.
At the last general election in 2013, the CPP took 48% of the popular vote, a 9% drop from the previous election in 2008, the only poll where it ever won more than half of the total ballot.
“2018 would have meant defeat for the CPP had they not dissolved the CNRP,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
“They dealt with it the only way they know how – by changing the rules of the game–and that means [the] CNRP must never be allowed to return post-election in the mind of ruling party and the ruling [Hun Sen] family.”
It is thus telling that the CPP is now running on many of the same campaign promises the CNRP previously used to win voters’ hearts and minds. Some analysts even see the CPP’s many unprecedented policy promises as a lurch towards “populism.”
Most of the programs are outlined in the CPP’s five-year plan, formally known as the “Political Platform for Construction and Defense of Motherland, 2018-2023”, which was adopted by the party after a major conference in January this year.
For one, the CPP has promised to significantly reduce electricity costs, currently among the highest in Asia due to a lack of power generation capacity and energy sources, for both households and businesses.
The CNRP leveraged the same cost-cutting vow at last year’s local level commune elections, where it won around three million votes, or 43.8% of the popular vote.
The CPP has also promised to boost social welfare, including through a three-phase program to provide funds to poor pregnant women and children, a work insurance program for civil servants, and new tax incentives for farmers.
“At the last general election, the CPP said we only had expensive promises and not to trust us. Then after the election, they took our policies,” says a Phnom Penh-based CNRP supporter who requested anonymity.
He claims the CPP has co-opted and is now campaigning on five of the seven policies the CNRP successfully leveraged to win a record number of votes at the 2013 polls.
Hun Sen has argued – as he did after the 2013 election – that because the CPP is the ruling party, only it has the power to implement policy changes and not simply make empty promises to voters.
“If I do not implement, please all of you stand up against me in a rebellion to overthrow Hun Sen – I am serious, I am not kidding,” Hun Sen said at a speech to garment workers in late June, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper reported.
With a measure of self-awareness, he added: “some people have said that my populist policies are only brought out at election time, and after the election, they will be not implemented.” “But if the ruling party promises something, it will happen.”
From a fiscal perspective, the CPP’s campaign pledges are actually modest. Promised payments for pregnant women, for instance, will only cost the government around US$7 million per year, the CPP has estimated.
Cutting electricity tariffs, meanwhile, would cost the government about US$40 million each year, either through new power plant building or spending on subsidies. There are suggestions that it will raise the funds from higher taxes.
Analysts agree that Hun Sen’s populist programs could be easily absorbed by ever-rising national budgets, which have risen from US$2.2 billion in 2013 to around US$6 billion this year.
The larger concerns lie in whether the CPP will be able to keep campaign promises that require private sector buy-in, analysts say. That’s particularly true of the crucial garment industry, the country’s largest employer with an estimated 847,419 workers as of last year.
The CNRP has historical links to the industry, ties it has leveraged to pressure the government, but Hun Sen is clearly trying to break that hold. In recent months, Hun Sen has toured many textile factories, where he has handed out US$5 to each worker who attended his speeches.
Closer to the actual polls, Hun Sen and other CPP candidates have been strident about the need for the private sector to accept and support the welfare policies the party has proposed for workers.
That includes doubling the amount all employers must pay for employees into a government-managed National Social Security Fund (NSSF), up from 1.7% of an employee’s average monthly salary at present to 3.4% in the near-term future.
It’s the CPP’s campaign promise to significantly boost the mandatory national minimum wage, however, that could erode the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors.
The minimum wage for garment workers was increased from US$153 to US$170 per month earlier this year. Basic analysis suggests that bump will cost employers an additional US$204 per worker per year, or roughly US$172 million per year industry-wide.
On the hustings, Hun Sen has promised that the garment sector’s minimum wage will rise to US$250 per month by 2023, although he and his party’s politicians have offered few details on whether the mandatory rise would be incremental or implemented in one go.
Significantly, the CPP’s promises of higher wages come amid signs that certain industries, including the crucial garment sector, are already in financial distress.
Some factory owners have already fled the country due to the higher minimum wage implemented earlier this year, leaving the government to foot the bill for unpaid workers’ salaries. More are expected to follow if the government burdens them with hitherto unseen extra costs.
“If they risk Cambodia’s hard-earned economic stability, or worse yet solvency, they’ll kill the golden goose. They will have nothing left to brag about and it will be the end of the CPP,” predicts academic Sophal Ear.
Some analysts, however, think a newly elected CPP government won’t be as forceful in extracting private sector concessions as the party has suggested it would on the campaign trail.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, believes the CPP will only push for a modest increase in the minimum wage after it wins the election
“[It’s] more likely the CPP will renege on its promises and shift towards more authoritarian measures to maintain power.”
Indeed, much of the CPP’s five-year political program seems to have been designed with a primary vision of remaining in power. Hun Sen, 65 and the world’s longest serving prime minister, has pledged to retain the premiership for at least another decade.
A newly elected CPP government will “not allow the loophole or space that is used for the creation of the opposition force or any illegal armed force to destroy the achievements and prosperity of the society and the nation,” reads the CPP’s political program manifesto.
“[The CPP] must strengthen the capacity of our surveillance system and the controlling technology system thoroughly, and reduce the risk for society.”