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Avoiding the ‘Legitimacy’ Cliff in Post-Election Cambodia

October 2, 2013

Cambodia is at a historical impasse. The July National Assembly elections resulted in a surprisingly strong showing from Cambodia’s emergent second political party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP won 44.46 percent of the popular vote compared to the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) with 48.83 percent.

Cambodians participate in election campaigning

Cambodia’s elections resulted in a surprisingly strong showing from Cambodia’s emergent second political party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Photo/Karl Grobl

After years of independent reviews of the election system and recommendations for major reform, few were surprised about the widespread allegations of irregularities at the polls. However, as a result of the swing in favor of CNRP, the election has raised widespread doubts over the legitimacy of CPP’s rule. CNRP stands by its claim that it won the elections, deserving just over half the seats in parliament, and enough for it to form a government. CPP has remained resolute that even if it admits there were irregularities in the election, it rejects proposals for an independent review. This then begs the question: what does the current standoff mean for stability in the country?

Since July, pressure has been mounting among the opposition supporters to contest the election results. The perceived mishandling of the investigation into alleged election irregularities has only fueled the opposition’s momentum for change. On Sunday, September 15, originally intended non-violent mass demonstrations led by CNRP ended in skirmishes between citizens and security forces amid blockaded streets. It resulted in one death and a number of injuries. The day before these events, the King announced the official results of the July national elections, reaffirming the CPP’s mandate to govern. But it did little to assuage widespread concerns among opposition supporters and many others that the election results were not sufficiently accurate and that the process of investigating complaints was not sufficiently transparent or independent.

Cambodia Elections

Campaign posters line the streets ahead of Cambodia’s elections. Photo/Karl Grobl

The day following the protests, the leaders of the CPP and CNRP met for five hours to negotiate a solution to the crisis. The resulting press conference and speeches outlined short-term points of agreement, chiefly that the security forces would remove the barricades and that CNRP disavows the use of violence. Within hours, the blockades were removed, the military police were withdrawn, and there was an air of jubilation among CNRP supporters. The two parties also agreed in principle to the reform of the National Election Commission (NEC) and to meet again, which they did for several hours next day. However, the results of the follow up meeting were less jubilant – media reports described a gulf between the two parties on key issues, such as reforming the NEC, and how deep and far those reforms should go.  A week later, CPP attended the opening of parliament in the absence of CNRP and formed a government alone. Pundits warn that Cambodia is dangerously close to being a one-party state. CNRP promises further demonstrations until their concerns are met.

As CPP seeks to reassert its hegemony, primarily through getting the gears of government going after two months in waiting, the likelihood of comprehensive electoral reform under a CPP controlled government is receding. This may not be to CPP’s benefit. Arguably, CPP will have less incentive to bring discipline to its party’s leadership, both at the national and provincial levels, as concerns about being popular at the ballot box appear less important. The CPP may soon find it difficult to create applicable, accurate, and alternative measures to gauge support. The question remains: if not elections, what will drive the much-needed reform in the country?  Without an easy answer, the country’s institutions, including the police, judiciary, and military, may find it increasingly difficult to contain the mounting societal pressure for change.

Cambodia is not the first country to navigate these dangerous waters – electoral reform has indeed occurred after widely-disputed election results in other countries, such as Mexico and Sierra Leone, for example. In order for CPP and CNRP to stem further escalation of the current crisis, the experiences from other countries suggest that the CPP needs to openly reject the results of the NEC. In return, CNRP would need to swallow the outcome of the elections and enter parliament. In order to broker this arrangement, CPP needs to take the first step in bringing the parties back to the negotiating table. Both parties need to then show commitment to keeping the inter-party machinery going, and to spell out a roadmap for electoral reform, which includes a thorough, independent investigation.

Time is of the essence. The government needs to avoid going over a “legitimacy” cliff; CNRP cannot hold out for choice seats in parliament or make peripheral demands, such as getting its own TV station. CNRP should be the first to recognize that media and NGO attention fades quickly and with it the possibility of sustaining reform through public pressure. Instead of focusing on party gains, now is the time for both parties to seek upfront guarantees that will make the business of governance capable of producing what people want.

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.

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