Just days before the July 27 election, an Asian diplomat remarked that one of the most unusual aspects of Cambodia’s third test at the ballot box was the “supreme confidence” the ruling CPP displayed in its ability to win the elections in a somewhat free and fair fashion.
Prime Minister Hun Sen steered the CPP to comfortable victory, and, although “horse trading” on the formation of a government has taken some snap out of his success, Hun Sen appears to be in full control, as Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party maneuver for the best spots in which to weather the next five years of CPP government.
But the election, lauded by some observers as another Miracle on the Mekong, may well be remembered by some as the Bashing on the Bassac, as the ruling CPP was outpaced by the opposition in Phnom Penh.
Though pocketing some 73 seats overall, according to preliminary results, the CPP only retained its four parliamentary seats in Phnom Penh. Meanwhile the opposition party took six—half of the city’s 12 parliamentary seats.
The opposition’s seats weighed together with Funcinpec’s two seats in Phnom Penh, meaning that just around a third of Phnom Penh’s voters supported the CPP.
Hun Sen’s election victory vindicates his mass popularity and the effectiveness of the CPP political machine, but also shows the gap between Phnom Penh’s urban voters and the majority in the rural population, observers said.
“When people are more educated, better off, they tend to be more critical and expectations are higher. Even though they have better streets and houses, but still they feel it is not enough,” said Cambodian academic Lao Mong Hay.
Though the opposition party won two more seats in Phnom Penh than the CPP, the CPP’s vote was still up 6 percentage points from 1998, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said, adding that the opposition’s success was at the expense of Funcinpec. “Usually the people [in Phnom Penh] vote against authority.”
“We don’t believe our support is dwindling,” said Khieu Kanharith, who disagreed with claims that younger and better-educated urban voters were alienated by the CPP.
The CPP’s poor showing at the polls in Phnom Penh is all about “rising expectations,” abundant media access and less “intimidation and control” in the city, Lao Mong Hay said.
Though the last month’s election was conducted in a climate more peaceful than 1998, village and commune chiefs ensured, particularly in rural areas, the process was still CPP-controlled from “top to bottom,” Lao Mong Hay said.
“[The election] reminds me of Britain in the old days when tenants, peasants were forced by landlords to vote for the landlord’s party. That sort of pressure,” Lao Mong Hay said.
Though opposition to the CPP is strong in Phnom Penh, the growth of Hun Sen’s political rivals in rural areas is less assured than the emergence of a CPP “one-party state,” he said.
“Use common sense, people who are common folk, for years they haven’t seen members of other parties…. CPP candidates or agents, they speak the language of the rural folks. They present themselves, externally, as rural folks,” Lao Mong Hay said.
Loyalty to Hun Sen in the countryside is secured through the CPP’s access to finances and resources, a more effective party machine and a political message spoken in the language of rural villagers. Political challengers to the CPP must compete on all three fronts, Lao Mong Hay said.
Phnom Penh voted the way it did because the electorate is better informed and less controlled, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
But the popularity of a party at election time is less important than working for the voters all the time, Chea Vannath said.
“All sides will have to work for the people and the nation and not just their party,” she said.
In a country where about 85 percent of the 12 million population lives in rural areas, the CPP has a strong and loyal voter base which responds to Hun Sen’s folksy, down-to-earth approach.
“But the less hungry the voters are the more likely they are to support the SRP. This was shown clearly in the election,” said opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay.
“Now the CPP has to know they are living in the city of SRP supporters. They have to behave themselves in Phnom Penh,” Son Chhay said.
The CPP’s weak showing in Phnom Penh has not been lost on the party, a senior CPP government official said.
CPP policies must become more relevant to future generations as education and communications will increase by 2008, and so will voters’ expectations, even in rural areas, the official said.
“The children of today, in five, or 10 years, will not be the same. Five years from now everything will be depend on professionalism,” he said.
It remains to be seen if the CPP is capable of reforming and winning back the city vote, he added.
Though the CPP is now relishing its overall election victory, the next five years in government might well be a sobering experience, Lao Mong Hay said.
Joining the World Trade Organization will open Cambodian markets to unparalleled levels of competition, at the same time the country is not attracting adequate foreign investment or protecting local investors.
With Thailand and Vietnam pushing through competitive economic reforms, Hun Sen’s government needs an “injection of new blood and the creation of new institutions,” Lao Mong Hay said.
“You have to equip yourself to be fighting fit and you cannot be fit to fight, to compete without having proper institutions,” he said.
“This is an opportunity for the CPP to project the new image, the new style over the old faces. [Hun Sen] needs to project a new image, the emperor [needs] new clothes,” Lao Mong Hay said.