When the CPP nearly lost the national election in 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen responded with a marathon speech calling for an end to corruption and business as usual.
Four years later, when the opposition won roughly 43 percent of the popular vote in the recent June 4 commune elections, Mr. Hun Sen answered with a Facebook photo album of his morning golf outing.
“The CPP party will remain the party with a majority in Parliament and continue to lead the government,” Mr. Hun Sen predicted.
But given the CNRP’s relatively strong showing in an election that has traditionally favored the ruling party, Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the party, admitted that the lessons of 2013 were still relevant.
The CPP officials should “take a bath, clean your body, look in the mirror to see your face clearly in order to avoid doing something that affects people’s interests or people’s feelings,” Mr. Eysan said in an interview on Tuesday, echoing Mr. Hun Sen’s 2013 speech.
Analysts say that the case is as strong as ever for the aging CPP to remake and rebrand itself to voters on a scale it never managed to after the last election, even if they remain skeptical the party can overcome decades of inertia in the 12 months before next year’s vote.
The limits of those reforms were on display on Friday, when King Norodom Sihamoni signed a royal decree replacing Phnom Penh municipal governor Pa Socheatvong with Khuong Sreng, the aging deputy governor and CPP apparatchik perhaps best known for his heavy-handed approach against protesters.
“You know what they can do with one year?” asked Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, in an interview earlier this month. “Put forward some serious, serious agenda to convince people that they mean it this time. And that’s all they can do.”
The CPP has shifted shape before.
In the 1980s, Mr. Hun Sen was credited with pushing his party to forgo its communist roots in favor of what has become an enthusiastic free-market embrace.
And the prime minister’s post-election soul-searching in 2013 was accompanied by an immediate cabinet reshuffle that saw several members of the old guard edged aside for younger faces who pushed more populist agendas. Another change last year saw eight ministers moved after the government said they had failed to clamp down on nepotism or, in Mr. Hun Sen’s words, were too “slow.”
Education advocates and foreign observers have praised Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron’s overhaul of the corruption-riddled national exams and prioritization of teacher education. Environment Minister Say Sam Al has championed an aggressive new Environmental Code and locked horns with the Agriculture Ministry over protection of the country’s dwindling forests, while Sun Chanthol earned plaudits for attracting foreign investment as commerce minister before being tapped to run the Transportation Ministry last year.
And taking cues from the CNRP’s popular 2013 platform, Mr. Hun Sen pledged to raise the minimum salary for civil servants and soldiers to $250 a month by the time next year’s elections roll around—more than double their 2015 minimum.
A quantitative survey of more than 5,000 voting age Cambodians seemingly conducted on behalf of the CPP last year, and confirmed by a senior party member on Sunday, suggests that the ruling party is aware of its own weakness, with respondents saying they trusted the CNRP more to fight corruption, improve the economy, create jobs and raise the price of agricultural products, but preferring the CPP when it comes to infrastructure and education.
But Mr. Eysan was vague about what changes to expect from the party going forward, saying that officials have been told to change their ways.
“Don’t act as people’s boss, please act as the people’s servant,” he said.
Critics say the reforms are more talk than action.
While Mr. Sam Al hailed the end of large-scale illegal logging in eastern Cambodia last year, Vietnamese customs records showed timber continuing to pour over the border with continued direct evidence of officials’ involvement in the trade.
Mr. Chuon Naron, meanwhile, defended a senior ministry official who was arrested for groping his interpreter on a work trip in South Korea, claiming the crime was “not rape” and therefore not serious. And Mr. Chanthol’s efforts as commerce minister to streamline business registration—which he predicted would boost Cambodia’s ranking to 21st in the World Bank Group’s annual list—instead nudged it down one spot, to 180th out of 190 countries reviewed.
It’s a familiar perch for Cambodia, which has long kept company with war-torn and despotic states in the basement of international indexes of corruption, environmental degradation and judicial independence.
Voters have taken notice, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
“The essence of the patron-client relationship is patrons taking responsibility for those ‘beneath’ them, and so even from a ‘traditional’ Cambodian perspective the CPP has fallen seriously short,” he wrote in an email earlier this month.
Still, “there may be some ways for the CPP to win back public support,” he said. “These seem to involve not a serious restructuring of how Cambodia is governed, but rather a more equal distribution of patronage and economic fruits to the poorest segments of society.”
That reform might include further salary bumps, social land concession handouts or improvements to services like education, where Mr. Strangio said there were relatively fewer opportunities for official “rent-seeking.”
Opposition control of roughly a third of Cambodia’s communes will give the CNRP new—albeit limited—access to state resources, bringing fresh competition for the ruling party, according to Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University.
CPP reforms “would likely be of the kind that improve livelihoods of voters directly and tangibly,” she wrote in an email. “The CNRP will now dispose of new financial levers which means that we should see increased competition in populist policies between CPP and CNRP.”
The ruling party might start by providing increased local-level funding, taking the cue from the opposition’s pledge to raise commune funds to at least $500,000 annually, according to Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.”
The CPP “realized that it was true that they basically gave nothing to the communes and that fiscal decentralization had not taken place since 2002,” he wrote in an email. “They simply were not sharing the wealth. They shared it through the CPP, as is their habit.”
Any reforms, however small, would be better communicated by fresh faces, according to Mr. Virak.
Though the party has made piecemeal attempts at installing younger voices like Mr. Sam Al or Mr. Chanthol, “they’re slowly putting these people in place,” Mr. Virak said. “It’s never going to change the image of the old party.”
And youth alone doesn’t guarantee a new mindset, according to Mr. Strangio. He points to the example of Western-educated Funcinpec officials who returned to the country in the early 1990s.
“As soon as they were in government, these guys were as enthusiastic about playing patronage as anyone,” he said.
Ms. Noren-Nilsson, the Swedish academic, said the old guard was just as likely to put forward reform as the new, and said any changes would take second fiddle to more heavy-handed tactics ahead of next year’s vote.
“I expect the CPP to intensify its twofold strategy, but emphasize the first component: tight restrictions on oppositional activities combined with measured reform,” she said.
That strategy might risk alienating voters, according to the leaked survey, with 52 percent of respondents saying they were “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to support the opposition “if the CPP limits the CNRP from campaigning in the next election.”
Mr. Eysan, the ruling party spokesman, said the CPP would win again next year because voters liked what the party had done for them. Elections were like boxing matches, he said.
“You can’t be a winner forever, but for the CPP, we never lost,” he said. “Like it or not, we are the defending champion.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)