Post-poll deadlock tests Cambodian stability
By Sebastian Strangio
PHNOM PENH - A new political dance has begun in earnest between Cambodia's long-serving prime minister Hun Sen and his chief rival opposition leader Sam Rainsy, with potential far-reaching implications for political stability in the weeks and months ahead.
In the five days since Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) posted surprising gains in tense national elections, the opposition has taken the political offensive by rejecting a preliminary official announcement that gave a 68-to-55-seat victory to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and calling for an
international probe into widespread electoral irregularities.
On Tuesday, Rainsy raised the stakes by declaring victory outright, claiming his party actually won 63 of the National Assembly's 123 seats and calling for Hun Sen's resignation. After years of fighting against Hun Sen, in power now for 28 years, Cambodia's perpetual political gadfly finally sees executive power within reach.
With both sides claiming to have won the election, Cambodia is now in political deadlock. Similar periods of paralysis followed elections in 1998 and 2003, when the CPP failed to win the two-thirds majority then required to form a government. On both occasions, Rainsy, then head of his self-named party, joined with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of the royalist Funcinpec party, and held up the formation of government in a bid to extract concessions from Hun Sen. On both occasions, Ranariddh cut a deal with the CPP behind Rainsy's back, entering government in exchange for a raft of government posts and sinecures.
This time the CNRP opposition has an unprecedented degree of leverage. For one, there is no third party that Hun Sen can buy-off with token government posts and other sweeteners. For the first time, Cambodia has what could be described as a two-party system, and the CNRP appears united and energized, riding on a wave of popular desire for change. Though the current result gives Hun Sen the simple majority he requires to form a government and extend his rule into its fourth decade, analysts say the CNRP has the power to boycott the opening session of the National Assembly and hold up the installation of a new cabinet.
The party is also backed by a wide cross-section of the Cambodian public, who came out en masse to welcome Rainsy home from self-exile on July 19. Though Rainsy was barred by the National Election Committee (NEC) from contesting the polls, the possibility remains that the CNRP could up the ante on its claim to victory through street protests. Rainsy has warned the CPP of a "massive demonstration on a nationwide scale" if his party's demands are not met.
After three days of post-election silence, Hun Sen's first response was to strike a conciliatory tone. Touring a construction site in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, he told reporters that he welcomed a joint investigation if the NEC was willing to establish one. Hun Sen also said his party was "ready and open" to enter talks with the CNRP over the formation of a new National Assembly.
Then came the stick. In meetings with foreign diplomats on Thursday night, Hun Sen warned the CNRP that if it boycotts the National Assembly the government has the power to redistribute its seats to other minor parties (none of which won any seats on Sunday). The same day, the NEC - widely believed to be under the ruling party's thumb - rejected the proposal for a joint election inquiry. Alongside this threat, Hun Sen reiterated that he was willing to cooperate closely with the CNRP, hinting at an offer of key positions in the National Assembly.
All of this is more or less par for the course. Based on past experience, Hun Sen will try to open negotiations, shackle his opponents with small concessions, and then work the process to his advantage. But with the prime minister still reeling from his party's bruising loss of seats (it won 90 of 123 seats at the 2008 polls), the CNRP is standing firm.
"We accept the dialogue, but the objective is to establish and expose the truth - nothing less," Rainsy told Radio Australia on Thursday. "The truth is that the ruling party, after ruling Cambodia for 34 years, has lost this election and there is a democratic change underway in Cambodia."
Misread popular sentiment
The CNRP's complaints of electoral irregularities have been echoed by the observations of most independent election monitors, who say the poll - the most peaceful since the election organized by the United Nations in 1993 - has also been the least fair.
But even if the CNRP can provide conclusive proof it was robbed of victory, it still has to contend Cambodia's unchanged political reality. Despite grossly misreading popular sentiment, Hun Sen still controls the police, army, courts, civil service and a nationwide political network with roots in every village and commune. Crucially, he also has the support of most of the business community. After winning a surprise victory against the CPP in 1993, Ranariddh's Funcinpec was not able to run the country without accepting Hun Sen as co-premier - and there is no reason to think Rainsy could do so now.
Some sort of political settlement is therefore almost certain. But how willing is Rainsy to compromise? Over the past two decades he has developed a reputation as a principled but often stubborn figure. Appointed finance minister after the 1993 election, he was dumped from the cabinet a year later for attacking the corruption of Hun Sen and Ranariddh, then co-prime ministers. In 1995, Ranariddh kicked him out of the Funcinpec party altogether, costing Rainsy his seat in the National Assembly. Rainsy has been in opposition ever since, on a self-appointed mission to unseat Hun Sen and restore democracy to Cambodia. "The impression you had [of Rainsy] was very little flexibility, very little compromise," said one former Western ambassador who served in Cambodia in the 1990s.
Rainsy's own principles have been matched by an often naive conviction that the UN and Western governments would provide him concrete backing in his struggle for democracy against Hun Sen. In August 1998, during post-election protests, he went so far as to call for the US to remove the prime minister by bombing his "tiger's lair" compound south of Phnom Penh. In recent days, he has held talks with US and European officials, presumably seeking international support for his post-election plans.
After previous elections, however, foreign governments have rarely provided much beyond statements of "concern" or lukewarm calls for reform. Ultimately, they have accepted the results of every poll since 1993, even though these have frequently been marred by political bloodshed.
As expected, the US has called for investigations into Sunday's poll, but Sophal Ear, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said the public comments showed Washington had "little resolve" to intervene directly. Countries like China, Bangladesh and Hungary have also already declared the elections "free and fair".
"I know it's not a popularity contest," Ear said, "but unless the international community closes ranks, the ruling party isn't going to be swayed."
A fine line
This leaves the CNRP with two options. The first is that Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, emboldened by their strong electoral showing, take to the streets - something independent observers warn could be a risky move.
"Rainsy has to see that what he's won is seats in the Assembly that could have an influence on the future of Cambodia. He has not won a mandate to rule the country," said Professor David Chandler, a leading historian of Cambodia. Comparing the current situation to 1998, when post-election protests led to violent clashes and the shooting of demonstrators, he said Rainsy runs the risk of stumbling into a confrontation that escapes his control.
"It's not the same situation now," Chandler said, "and if you pull people onto the streets somebody might get killed. That's what happened in '98, and its more crucial now because he's got more support."
The other option - the more likely, according to analysts - is to reach some sort of negotiated settlement with the CPP. While Rainsy claims the CNRP is not interested in bargaining for positions in government - that instead he wants "truth" and "justice" - he is likely to temper his claims. "The rhetoric now is different, but the reality is he's compromised in the past," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Accommodation carries its own dangers. As Funcinpec discovered after entering coalitions with the CPP after the 1993, 1998 and 2003 elections, a share of government posts and ministerial portfolios is no guarantee of practical power. Funcinpec's share of power shrunk at each subsequent election, and the party is now effectively dead after failing to win even a single seat at the July 28 poll. If the CNRP enters a coalition with Hun Sen, the opposition's claimed electoral victory could be paid out in the same debased coinage given to the royalists: powerless figurehead posts in ministries and institutions that remain beholden to the CPP.
"The opposition party should learn from this," said Kem Ley, an independent political analyst. "Even if they're given the ministry of health, they can't control the administrative structure."
Ley suggests that the CNRP should instead focus its energies on securing key positions in the National Assembly - the posts of president and deputy president, as well as leading positions on the nine parliamentary commissions - where they could provide robust opposition to the CPP and begin the slow process of internal reform. The party could also request the reform of other CPP-infused institutions like the NEC and Constitutional Council, with an eye towards creating a more level playing field for the next national election in 2018.
The other challenge for Rainsy will be managing public expectations. As pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has recently discovered in Myanmar, the ability to raise people's hopes also imparts the crushing burden of trying to satisfy them. For Rainsy and his party, reaching a weak deal with the CPP risks alienating the party's support base - especially those activists who have put their personal safety on the line to campaign for the CNRP and are now reportedly agitating for protests.
"Many of the youth do not necessarily fully support Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy; they just want change," Virak said. "If their leaders betray them, they may not listen."
Regardless of how the situation plays out, the July 28 vote was a remarkable result for Cambodia. As in 1993, the people came out and voiced a strong preference for change, confounding a ruling party that thought it had built enough bridges, roads, and schools to satisfy a discontented and impoverished population.
As the country enters a brave new political world, the opposition, flushed with success, will have to perform a delicate dance if it is to transform electoral returns into real reforms and practical power. "Politics is always a fine balance," said Virak. "This time is no different."
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh who covers the Asia-Pacific and is working on a book about modern Cambodia. He may be reached at email@example.com.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)