Over the past three days, the CNRP conducted one of the most significant campaigns of mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in years.
For three days, more than 20,000 people packed into Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park for daily appearances from opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.
And though the opposition showed that it can mobilize its supporters en masse, the demonstrations failed to push Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP any closer to reaching an agreement with the CNRP to form a joint committee to investigate July’s contested election results.
Nang Sokneth, a nursing student in Phnom Penh who took part in the three days of demonstrations, summed up the feelings of many supporters who turned out in Freedom Park with the specific demand for a probe into the election, which the CNRP claims it would have won if not for widespread irregularities.
“I think that the three days demonstration were useless because these peaceful demonstrations were not able to force the Cambodian People’s Party to provide a solution and justice for us,” he said.
“I would like to appeal to the Cambodia National Rescue Party not to join a National Assembly session if the CPP does not provide justice for the protester’s demands,” he added.
The CPP is adamantly opposed to cooperating in an investigation that might see its election victory overturned, political analysts and civil society leaders say, adding that the CNRP must now face a new challenge in terms of satisfying their supporters while conducting difficult negotiations.
“The CNRP and the people have flexed their muscles, but the CPP has not budged because they are not used to respecting public opinion,” said Thida Khus, chairwoman of the nonpartisan Committee to Promote Women in Politics.
Ms. Khus said the CPP was unlikely to agree to any measures that would threaten its decades-long hold on power, which means the opposition’s only option is to conduct a campaign of civil disobedience.
“Until there is more real pressure economically, I don’t think anything will happen [to change the CPP’s stance],” she said, adding that widespread labor strikes or boycotts of businesses aligned with the ruling party could be possible forms of civil disobedience.
A more likely scenario is that the CNRP will continue to use the threat of mass protests, in Phnom Penh and in the provinces, as a tool to bring about reforms from the CPP before it agrees to join the National Assembly, according to Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.
“To be realistic, I think that [an investigation into election results] is a very difficult demand,” he said, explaining that making this a condition of forming a new parliament and government would likely stifle further negotiations.
“If they [the CNRP] want a battle to go on forever, they can continue to protest and demand that and have the same political environment we have today,” he added.
Still, he said that “it is possible to include a joint investigation committee to do a fact-finding mission and investigation into the election as part of a mechanism for electoral reform,” adding that the CNRP was almost certainly pushing for reforms of the media, judiciary and anticorruption bodies in its ongoing negotiations with the CPP.
Although the CNRP may have to back down from its insistence on a comprehensive review of the July 28 poll, it may still be able to sell the election as a victory to their supporters, said Ou Ritthy, a prominent political blogger.
“There will be compromise—not through an independent joint committee, but in another way. In their minds they [the CNRP] are trying to find another way to share power with the CPP, but in a way that their supporters will agree with,” Mr. Ritthy said.
If Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha can explain to the CNRP’s supporters that serious reforms will ensure an opposition victory in future elections, they may be able to convince the party’s faithful that joining the National Assembly is the best way forward without suffering a drop in popularity, Mr. Ritthy said.
The CNRP would likely attribute future cooperation with the CPP to its respect for King Norodom Sihamoni, who is scheduled to convene the first session of the new National Assembly on Monday.
“If in bargaining the CNRP has its own TV station, restructures the NEC and has president of the National Assembly, I think it is no problem with CNRP youth and supporters in general. It creates a situation for them to achieve a landslide victory in the next election,” Mr. Ritthy said.
Although the CNRP’s three days of demonstrations may not have achieved their stated goal, they have ramped up pressure on the CPP for reform and set a precedent for mass public protest against the government that the opposition can continue to leverage over the next five years.
“The demonstrations were not just about telling the decision makers to do something, but they also created a new culture where Cambodian people gather to make their demands heard,” said political analyst Kem Ley, adding that the tactics would likely spread across the country as the CNRP continued to strengthen and expand its reach.
“[Demonstrators] learned the lesson that they…can get up and fight against public service providers if they do not act with professionalism. This culture will grow stronger in the future if people are dissatisfied with decision makers when there are infractions of the law or corruption or land grabbing,” he added.
According to political analyst Chea Vannath, while the reforms that would be necessary to appease CNRP supporters would be “very painful” to Mr. Hun Sen, the CNRP may for the first time be able to bring about a separation of power within Cambodia’s government.
“Right now we have the three branches of government all under one individual who is the prime minister. But if in the next five years we have participation of CNRP and decisions go through the [legislative] institutions, there will be a check and balance,” she said.
“But to strengthen institutions so that they counterbalance each other is very difficult because it is still the prime minister who has ruled the country for 30 years. The prime minister himself will have a very hard time slowing himself down to listen and to work [within a] democracy,” she added.
However, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that the demonstrations, in which opposition supporters were fervent in their demands for government reform, left him optimistic that real reforms would have to be made by the CPP in order to govern the country over the next five years.
“The opposition has more clout than ever before, and behind it is the people. The CNRP can work in the [National Assembly] chamber and outside the chamber with public opinion and protests” said Mr. Mong Hay.
While the CNRP may ultimately fail to force the CPP to cooperate in an election probe, the biggest victory for the opposition in the past three days came in reaffirming its constitutional democratic rights, he said.
“It is very difficult for the Rescue Party to get less than what the people want. It puts them in a very difficult position,” he said. “But the Rescue Party has won something already. They won the right to hold these meetings, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)