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Electoral Reform Breathes New Life in Cambodia

July 23, 2014

On Tuesday, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) agreed to take its 55 seats in the national assembly on condition of reconstituting the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which it accused of rigging last year’s national election, ending a year-long parliamentary deadlock.

Cambodia Election posters

Last year’s election revealed a fundamental shift in voter expectations. The elections marked the first decline in support in 20 years for Hun Sen’s CPP and the consolidation of opposition parties into Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s CNRP. Photo/Karl Grobl

The agreement comes a week after a peaceful demonstration turned violent at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park when opposition party members retaliated against security guards hired by the government to block demonstrators from entering the park. The confrontation left eight guards seriously injured. Eight members of the opposition CNRP who were held on charges of insurrection and incitement were released now that a deal has been brokered.

While the “squeeze and release” pattern of Cambodian politics is familiar, reasoned political discourse is not. CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will have to work together through the details of the constitutional amendment that stipulates that a nine-member NEC must be elected by the national assembly by a majority vote of the whole parliament. CPP and CNRP will each select four members while the remaining member will be agreed upon by consensus between the parties. Cautious optimism is required while the parties confront the considerable workload before them.

As the next round of commune and national elections rapidly approach, in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the framework and timetable for electoral reform still needs to be agreed upon by the parties. In March, parties agreed to hold a national dialogue on electoral reform and a subsequent 14-point framework between CPP and CNRP, which includes longstanding issues such as voter registration, media access, NEC reform, and neutrality of civil servants and the armed forces. Since then, most of the 14 points have either been agreed upon or dropped, where negotiations narrowed on the independence of the NEC and how its members would be selected. In working through the details of the points already agreed to, now is the time to put national interests above party interests. In May this year, The Asia Foundation conducted a national public opinion survey on electoral reform to identify voters’ priorities and opinions in relation to the 14 points. Preliminary results suggest a strong mandate for electoral reform. However, while reform of the NEC is viewed as important, it is insufficient.

What the electorate says about electoral reform

The survey, which will be released in full in August, was based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens aged 18 and older in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and Phnom Penh between May 19 and June 9, yielding an estimated margin of error +/- 3%. Preliminary analysis of the poll suggests that the majority of the electorate say that their vote can make a difference (58%), yet when asked if they think there were significant problems with the 2013 National Assembly elections, 60 percent of respondents said “yes.” Approximately half of respondents (53%) said they believed last year’s elections were not free and fair.

Ninety-six percent of respondents said they were aware of the NEC. Yet respondents showed low trust in the NEC: respondents who said that the NEC has very high (2%) or high integrity (10%) was below the total portion of respondents who rated the NEC with very low integrity (26%) and low integrity (22%).

Two-thirds of respondents are dissatisfied with the NEC, which includes 32 percent who say they are very dissatisfied with only 4 percent very satisfied. Part of this view could relate to the finding that 60 percent of respondents say they don’t believe NEC is free from influence by political parties. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they preferred a balanced NEC with representation from political parties instead of having a neutral, government-appointed NEC, as is the current status.

Of the one out of two people surveyed who thought last year’s election was not free and fair, the most common complaint respondents had was missing names from the electoral list (56%), followed by electoral fraud (26%), Vietnamese nationals voting (13%), arguments at the polling place (11%), voter impersonation (9%), duplicate names on list (8%), political parties not cooperating well (7%), and wrong names on the voter list (7%).

Remarkably, in light of such problems, those surveyed appear to hold values that support the electoral process, which may reflect the peaceful conduct of the political parties in last year’s elections. For example, respondents overwhelmingly (96%) said that all political parties should be allowed to hold meetings in their area, even if they don’t align themselves with the political party. Eighty-five percent of respondents said that they think women should be just as active as men in commune councils. When asked about preference of representation by a man or a women, approximately 2 out of 5 respondents said it makes no difference, whereas another 2 out of 5 preferred a man, and 1 out 5 preferred a woman.

Voters may have more nuanced and deeply rooted democratic values than previously thought; however, only 57 percent of respondents said they felt free to express their political opinion. Income level appears to be a major factor: 75 percent of respondents earning more than $500 per month said they felt free to express their political opinion, compared to 53 percent of those earning less than $200 per month.

Talk is not cheap, further dialogue is needed

Last year’s election revealed a fundamental shift in voter expectations. The elections marked the first decline in support in 20 years for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the consolidation of opposition parties into Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). However, any party in opposition to the CPP would face significant challenges in governing the country should they actually win the elections outright. Peaceful transfer of power rests on rule of law, a recognized weak spot for Cambodia.

Tim Meisburger, The Asia Foundation’s senior director for Elections and Political Processes, argues in a just released paper that Cambodia has a lot of options in changing what has become a “winner take all” political system. While Cambodia may only nominally be a multi-party system, elections are the “the only game in town” for maintaining domestic and international confidence in the country’s political system. The CPP has the real opportunity to gain back popular support it has lost if it is seen as leading the way to improve the electoral process. By not doing so, it is easy for CNRP to inflame anti-CPP sentiment under the current conditions.

The poll results suggest that the NEC is a good place to start establishing working relations between the parties, but at the same time, voters expect much more. The parties’ first step should be to clearly outline the guiding principles for electoral reform and open up the process to public input through national dialogue. If they fail to do so, the parties again risk raising party interests above the interests of the electorate, only to find themselves staring at another stalemate. Electoral reform should be viewed as more than a pre-condition for CNRP to take its seats in the national assembly. Instead electoral reform should be viewed as a prerequisite for any political party to govern with full legitimacy.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. On July 2, Everett joined experts for a panel hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London to discuss elections and development in post conflict states. Watch the video here. He can be reached at silas.everett@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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