In the aftermath of the 2013 election, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered his colleagues in the ruling CPP to stand before a mirror and cleanse themselves of the sins that had almost allowed a united opposition led by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to sweep to power.
The message, delivered in a six-hour speech on state television, was that the CPP had been handed a harsh lesson, but had come back from worse situations in the past and could do so again if it corrected its errant ways.
– News Analysis
“We expect for those voters to come back in 2018,” explained Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan in the days after the shock result, which put Mr. Rainsy within seven seats of ousting Mr. Hun Sen.
“We learn from the people,” Mr. Siphan said, casting a positive spin on the events. “We’ve learned from this campaign to push very quickly for social justice to provide better justice to the people.”
Two and a half years on, and halfway until the 2018 national election, the electoral program pursued by the ruling party has, in fact, instituted a number of major reforms. Many of them have coalesced around a few familiar ideas from 2013—those espoused by the opposition CNRP.
Since the last election, Mr. Hun Sen’s government has moved to implement at least half of the CNRP’s populist—and popular—seven-point policy campaign platform from 2013.
“They have followed only the political program of the CNRP at the previous election campaign: increasing civil servants’ salaries and the wages of the workers, for example. That was the program of the CNRP,” said Thun Saray, head of rights group Adhoc.
“For the main and important reforms for the country, such as an independent judiciary and public services, the CPP has still not shown up,” he added.
While the CNRP in 2013 pledged to increase the monthly minimum wage in the garment sector from $80 to $150, the CPP government has since brought it up to $140.
A separate 2013 pledge from the CNRP to increase the minimum wage for civil servants from $120 per month to $250 has also been matched by the CPP, with Mr. Hun Sen in November pledging that the salary would hit $250 at the start of 2018—just in time for the election.
In contrast, nine months before the election the prime minister said it would be impossible to raise civil servants’ salaries without massive increases on taxes for farmers.
Free health care for the poor, the fifth of the CNRP’s seven points from 2013, has also been adopted by the CPP through a new scheme of comprehensive health insurance for each formally employed worker, which was signed into law by Mr. Hun Sen last week.
The CPP has even publicly moved on CNRP promises to reduce fuel and electricity prices and lower unemployment. Only two CNRP campaign planks—a monthly pension for the elderly and a floor price for paddy rice—have not yet been implemented.
“The CNRP’s success so far as opposition is getting the country to focus on and try to correct some issues that we raised during our campaign,” said Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy head of public affairs and a daughter of Mr. Sokha, the party vice president.
Ms. Monovithya said that CNRP leaders appreciated the value to the public of the new policies, and were not concerned that they could help the CPP bolster its own popularity given that broader reforms had not yet been instituted.
“The most important and necessary reform is institutional reform, and that is not happening with this government, because such institutional reforms would shake up interest groups who are core CPP patrons.”
Yet CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he believed that the public had been receptive to Mr. Hun Sen’s recent efforts to recast himself as a more accessible leader since the lessons of the 2013 election.
“We have continued to implement reforms in favor of the people’s needs, as we don’t give insubstantial promises, but we take action in favor of people’s needs. We believe the public has seen how much the government has already done to solve the people’s suffering,” Mr. Eysan said.
Mr. Eysan pointed to education reform, recently announced electricity price reductions, ongoing increases in the minimum wage for civil servants, and the recent scrapping of an array of unpopular taxes affecting the poor as among the CPP’s best new policies.
“Based on information collected from the constituencies by the CPP’s outreach officials, Hun Sen, as the CPP’s president and prime minister, has solved these problems in quick time through critical discussions with other CPP officials,” Mr. Eysan said.
“We do these things because they are part of the party’s strategy for reduction of poverty among our population—including for the civil service, armed forces, and other Cambodians,” he explained.
“The CPP has had such a strategy for a long time, and doesn’t just follow this number of new parties who were just created yesterday, but boastfully allege that the CPP has been using their policies.”
In addition to these reforms, the CPP has taken up a more responsive style of government, with Mr. Hun Sen and many other officials creating personal Facebook pages on which they communicate directly with citizens.
Mr. Siphan, the Council of Ministers spokesman, said that this strategy had been paying dividends.
“The prime minister now has also been communicating directly with the people. Before, he had to sit down and read reports, but now he can learn from the people and immediately reply to their complaints and grievances, and amend the law,” Mr. Siphan said.
“For myself, I see the prime minister’s Facebook, and the people, they click ‘like’ a lot. More than a million people have liked his page. So I think they appreciate the prime minister’s efforts,” he added.
Mr. Saray of Adhoc said he was unsure if such a strategy of piecemeal reform and social media outreach would be effective, but said the 2017 commune council elections would likely reveal the answer to the question.
“Normally in a democratic society, they do polls of the opinions of the people, but now we cannot know what is the effect of these kinds of policies and tactics of Hun Sen to get popularity,” Mr. Saray said.
“We will see in 2017 what happens. If they win in 2017, they will continue on until the 2018 national election, but if they do not win in 2017, there could be some problems for the 2018 election,” he explained.
“We don’t know whether the 2018 election will go ahead smoothly. That is the concern we have.”
Either way, But Buntenh, a well-known Buddhist monk who leads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said that he believed it was too late for the CPP to convince people its reforms would be meaningful.
“In terms of regime survival, they have to reform but I don’t think they can reform because they have the same people. Through my observations, the CPP uses the word ‘reform,’ but it’s a diversion,” the monk said.
“The Cambodian people are beating the drum—‘boom, boom, boom’—but Hun Sen’s group are sleeping. It’s going ‘Boom, boom, boom: We need democracy,’ but they are all still asleep,” he said.
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