In Cambodia’s Election Impasse, Echoes of Malaysia

There are many differences between Cambodia and Malaysia.

Malaysia’s per capita gross domestic product, at about $12,000, is roughly 12 times that of Cambodia. Bursa Malaysia, the country’s stock exchange, boasts more than 1,000 listed firms compared to just one in Cambodia.

Yet the parliamentary elections that were held in the two countries this year bore striking similarities. And in their wake, political disputes have gripped each country as the opposition parties struggle to use their unprecedented popularity to force entrenched ruling parties to reform.

–News Analysis

In general elections on May 5, Malaysia’s Pakatan Rakyat (P.R.), the opposition coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim, won a majority of the popular vote, beating the ruling Barisan Nasional (B.N.), headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, by more than 3 percentage points.

Yet due to gerrymandering that gave additional weight to voters in rural areas—the base of B.N. support—the importance of the overwhelming popularity of the P.R. in urban areas was reduced and the ruling party was able to maintain a majority of seats in Parliament.

In Cambodia’s National Assembly election on July 28, the opposition CNRP saw a steep rise in its popularity despite an unfair political system in which the ruling CPP controls state institutions, broadcast media and maintains the loyalty of almost all of the country’s commune and village chiefs, who manage voter registration.

The CNRP, which maintains that it won the election outright, captured 44.5 percent of the popular vote, compared to 48.8 for the CPP, according to preliminary results released by the National Election Committee (NEC). This would give the opposition party 55 seats in the National Assembly, a steep rise from the 29 seats held by opposition parties during the last mandate.

But despite their increased strength, with strong bases of support in urban centers and growing backing in rural areas, both the CNRP and P.R. are struggling to turn their unprecedented showing at the ballot box into actual change within government.

With the election commissions in both Cambodia and Malaysia seen as heavily biased toward the ruling party, the opposition movements in both countries have focused their reform efforts on the state electoral apparatus.

In Malaysia, the opposition coalition has already seen gains on this front, with Mr. Najib’s government shifting oversight of its election commission from the executive branch to the pluralist Parliament. At the same time, however, opposition protests are waning and some of the leaders of these demonstrations have been arrested and charged with sedition.

In Cambodia, the NEC has summarily rejected complaints submitted by the CNRP and there have been no efforts by the government to reform the body despite recommendations to do so made by the U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi.

As Malaysia’s opposition leader, Mr. Anwar alleges that the ruling coalition stole the election by colluding with the country’s Election Commission to manipulate electoral rolls and mobilize illegal voters. The same claims have been made by CNRP president Sam Rainsy as he seeks to have election results in Cambodia overturned.

Another similarity is that neither party is likely to leverage its support this year to take power during the coming mandate, Southeast Asia analysts and academics said this week.

But with ruling establishments in Cambodia and Malaysia torn between patronage and populism, more long-term gains can be expected if the opposition movements manage to remain united.

Joshua Kurlantzik, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at U.S.-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations said that without a clear mandate from the people, neither the P.R. nor the CNRP can realistically expect to achieve change in government.

“It takes an enormous shift to get rid of such long-ruling parties like the B.N. or Hun Sen/CPP, so I think that CNRP or the P.R. would have needed to have clearly dominated the election to get real change,” he said in an email, adding that the maturity of Malaysia’s opposition coalition put it in a better position to take power in future elections.

“I think the Malaysian opposition has a higher chance of success in the future as it is more stable, is less dependent on one personality, faces a less difficult opponent and already has made broader gains,” he said.

But according to Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the Australia Defense Force Academy, the ethnic politics of Malaysia, which are favorable to the ruling coalition, along with its flexibility in reacting to change, make the B.N. better equipped to hold on to power in years to come.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the longest-serving ruling political party in the world and backbone of Malaysia’s ruling alliance, will likely maintain its support among the Malay majority and make the necessary changes to attract more of the minority Chinese and Indian communities, Mr. Thayer said.

“UMNO has experienced ups and downs in terms of the percentage of vote it has received in na­tional elections. It therefore has the experience of being introspective and self-critical. Its branches are capable of generating proposals for change and at [the] national level UMNO is capable of altering its policies to attract popular support,” he said, adding that the CPP may not be capable of such reform.

“There are signs that elements within the CPP are willing to engage in post-mortem on their setback in the recent elections. But the CPP appear less likely to jettison Hun Sen. His basis of power is different than Najib’s in Malaysia. Hun Sen dominates the CPP, Najib is responsible to UMNO,” he said.

As the B.N. and the CPP are facing a crisis in confidence among the electorate, both ruling parties have to figure out how to adopt more populist policies, such as those pushed by the opposition parties, while at the same time maintaining the patronage systems that have kept them in power, said Simon Springer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

“The fact that the CNRP and P.R. made such strong showing suggests that it simply can’t be ‘business as usual’ for either the CPP or the B.N., but it remains to be seen how much the opposition will be marginalized in the new governments that are formed,” he said.

“Both the B.N. and the CPP are going to have to rethink their strategies, and I think we’re going to see one of two possible outcomes. We could see a return to hard-line authoritarianism in both countries, where the facade of democracy is cast to the wind…or we’ll see attempts to make nice publicly, while working behind the scenes to exploit any cracks that might exist in the opposition party or coalition,” Mr. Springer said.

“The difficulty with [reform] is that the patron-client networks that have been established have certain expectations that conflict with what the electorate would like to see happen. It will be a fine line for the patrons [CPP and B.N.] in each case to maintain the support of clients when this contradicts the desires of the general citizenry,” he added.

He said that the challenge for both opposition parties will be to stay united.

“If the P.R. and CNRP can do this, there is a chance of success in the future, assuming electoral ‘irregularities’ don’t once again upset the balance.”

Even if the CNRP does eventually win power in Cambodia, it would find itself in the undesirable position of having to deal with failing government institutions and a poorly trained civil service, a contrast to the government in Malaysia, said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“Malaysia also suffers from corruption and excessive executive influence over other branches of government, but its institutions are considerably stronger. For example, it has common law courts that issue reasoned decisions and bureaucracies with well-trained civil servants,” Mr. Ciorciari said.

“In my view, that gives the opposition in Malaysia an important advantage over the CNRP. If the Malaysian opposition does take power, it will inherit a much stronger institutional apparatus,” he added.

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