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Cambodia’s 2013 Elections: A Measure of Political Inclusion?

July 24, 2013

Cambodians will go to the polls on July 28 for the fifth National Assembly election since the U.N. organized the historic 1993 elections. Victory for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is expected by many to be a foregone conclusion – a continuation of Hun Sen’s 28-year reign as prime minister, one of the longest serving leaders in Asia.

Cambodia election posters

Voter support for the CPP has remained steady over the last decade. The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) annual polling over the last seven years shows that roughly 80 percent of Cambodians believe the country is headed in the right direction. Photo/Karl Grobl

However, the 11th-hour return of the self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy last Friday, which culminated in a welcome rally attended by an estimated 100,000 supporters, has re-energized his coalition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), though the excitement was soon subdued when election authorities ruled on Monday that they would reject Rainsy’s application to run (although Rainsy is protesting this decision).

In addition, Sam Rainsy’s return failed to make nation-wide news in the government-dominated media. This is significant because the bulk of Cambodia’s citizens, 80 percent of whom live in rural areas, lack access to alternative sources of news and information, except those that amplify the CPP party line.

On top of that, a National Democratic Institute study of the quality of the government’s voter list found that 10.4 percent of voters listed could not be located and 9.4 percent of eligible voters had been deleted from the list. The fact the National Election Commission has not approved Sam Rainsy’s candidacy and thus he will not be on the ballot underlines many points on the opposition’s platform over the cooptation of the state by the CPP.

Meanwhile, the CNRP’s campaign efforts have been tarnished since their debut due to what some view as politically motivated use of the media and judicial system by the CPP, targeting the CNRP’s deputy, Kem Sokha, with legal claims of genocide denial and reneging on child support. Regardless of the CPP’s democratically questionable political tactics, it is important to understand why it remains such a formidable player in Cambodia.

Voter support for the CPP has remained steady over the last decade. The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) annual polling over the last seven years shows that roughly 80 percent of Cambodians believe the country is headed in the right direction. This is owed in part to the fact that in the last two decades, Hun Sen has effectively centralized power in Cambodia. It must be remembered that few nations have suffered as much terror as Cambodians did under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Even today, it is no small feat that this year’s campaigning has been conducted without major violent incident or political assassination and many Cambodians, especially those of the older generation, have taken note.

Much of the CPP’s legitimacy can be directly linked to the declining poverty rate which has been halved in the last decade. Behind Myanmar, Cambodians have experienced the second-most rapid rate of improvement in Human Development Index among the countries in the lower Mekong region in the last 10 years. Not only have there been steady increases in household income, but citizens have also benefited from improvements in local infrastructure, including roads, schools, and pagodas. In fact, 74 percent of those in IRI’s poll who said Cambodia is headed in the right direction said so because there are more roads now.

Cambodia elections

Cambodians have experienced the second-most rapid rate of improvement in Human Development Index among the countries in the lower Mekong region in the last 10 years. Photo/Karl Grobl

To date, the CPP has arguably achieved such gains through consolidating a party structure which has extended its hierarchy from Phnom Penh to almost every village in the country. Although the party’s super-structure has buttressed the state’s security apparatus and administrative functions, the party may increasingly find difficulty in controlling itself. Roughly 20 percent of Cambodians in IRI’s poll said that they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Corruption and land-grabbing have been their overriding concerns. Both Cambodia’s civil society organizations and international donors echo these concerns and have pushed for democratic reforms to address the many outstanding cases of corruption and human rights abuses.

Despite skepticism around the election, some important takeaways have already emerged. First, CNRP’s ability to spark strong interest among younger voters, particularly in urban areas, clearly demonstrates that youth under the age of 25, which accounts for 53.8 percent of Cambodia’s population, have a radically different set of expectations than their parents. This new generation is more educated, consumerist, and in search of higher living standards. Increasingly drawn to urban areas for work, Khmer youth do not carry the same willingness as older generations to be detached from politics or bound by traditional social norms. Better jobs and improved access to services, especially in urban Cambodia, are emerging as priorities for youth in this election.

The ever-popular demand for more rural roads and basic infrastructure, such as irrigation, cannot be overlooked either. Decentralization has thus far been essential to the CPP’s success, where providing budgets and greater autonomy to elected commune authorities have resulted in more infrastructure projects like road building. Still, there is a long way to go; simply building more roads may not keep citizens satisfied.

There are signs that further decentralization could bring a wealth of other benefits, including improved services in health and education. In order to reap these benefits, local-level budgets need to be increased. Currently, the budgets of all local administrative authorities combined are still a fraction of the national budget.

Going forward, it may be that any political benefits from further decentralization may likely have less to do with more resource transfers and institutional capacity-building, and more to do with finding alternative ways to curb the excesses of power, such as improving access to information and public participation.

With poor protection of human rights on the one hand and increasing prosperity on the other, Cambodians face a conundrum when choosing a new government. This election may be a foregone conclusion in this instance, but at its core rests the question of whether a “1.5 party” system for the country will be stable over time.

In the book, Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, the authors’ sweeping review of political systems over the millennia suggests that economically open but politically closed states have either had to open up politically to continue to grow or risk economic stagnation and at worst, collapse.

With concerns over China’s impending economic slowdown, upon which Cambodia relies heavily, maintaining national economic growth will test any Cambodian government in the next five years. Over the long term, if Acemoglu and Robinson are correct, Cambodia’s continued growth may be the best measure of political inclusiveness.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at severett@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. wm carroll:

    The previous writer is correct. And the macro econ indicators have little meaning to common people many of whom a till lack food. And the increasing role of foreigners reaping macro projects with lavish kickbacks to the Khmer elites is the missing point in the article.

  2. Ajeay:

    Is fair election possible in an authoritarian government in facade of democracy? A government ruled by one man, Hun Sen, his families, and friends for three decades. A man with his own personal body guard corps, name “Hun Sen’s Body Guard Unit” that has military power equivalent to that of nation military forces. Hun Sen Body Guard Unit has the authority of police, military MP, and army power combined. The military and police force are command by his relatives or his former body guard. Economics life, whether in private business or civil servant employment, in Cambodia is impossible without CPP patronage. All medias outlets must follow CPP agenda or risk imprisonment through defamation law. Provincials and local city or villages voters face collective punishment denial of local infrastructure such as roads or school if CPP does not win. Individual or Officials speaking against the government will faced defamation or incitement or corruption or terrorism charge and will be imprison. The government will say it a criminal matter, belong to the court, not political matter, but government control the courts. How could an election in such a country be fair?

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