For decades, the CPP has comfortably ruled Cambodia through a strategy of divide and conquer, dangling carrots of material advancement to elites who may otherwise challenge it, while wielding the stick of violence and arrests for anyone else.
The strategy destroyed the country’s royalist movement—once the biggest threat to its power and represented by the far more popular King Norodom Sihanouk—by the 2000s, and kept other opposition upstarts at bay until the CNRP’s surprise rise in 2013.
It surprised few, then, when the ruling party last year abandoned its “culture of dialogue” with the CNRP and ordered opposition leader Sam Rainsy jailed, also wasting no time in launching a full-on political assault on his popular deputy, Kem Sokha.
With commune elections a year away and the 2018 national election more than two years off, a new level of mayhem has been reached as lawmakers, Facebook users and rights monitors have been arrested, a U.N. official charged, and a political analyst sued for defamation by the CPP.
Popular discontent with the government has also been met with increasing paranoia, as the CPP has threatened legal action against those who wear black shirts in support of those arrested, suggesting they may be harbingers of a “color revolution.”
“Frankly, I don’t know who is the CPP’s brain nowadays since the death of Chea Sim,” former CPP Senator Chhang Song said on Sunday, referring to the ruling party’s founding president, who died in June and had long been a factional rival to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Hun Sen seems to be dealing all the CPP cards all by himself, using his corrupt and unprofessional lieutenants and hired hands to handle the most sensitive public relations,” Mr. Song said.
Indeed, at a time when the party should be rallying to combat discontent—an Asia Foundation survey in 2014 found only 32 percent of citizens satisfied with the direction of the country—it has instead launched an assault on critics, doing little to bolster public opinion.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he believed the CPP had lost any driving purpose apart from securing its leaders’ fiefdoms against the threat posed by the CNRP’s campaigns against years of government neglect.
“This cold-war-era party whose raison d’etre was the elimination of the Khmer Rouge regime 37 years ago, is actually fighting for its very survival,” Mr. Rainsy said by email.
“Approximatively 80 per cent of Cambodia’s present population were born after 1979 or were too young then to remember anything about the Khmer Rouge,” he added. “Given also its poor governing performances, the CPP understandably sees a continuous and dramatic erosion of its popular basis.”
Demographics are changing so drastically, in fact, that those who came of voting age this year will have been born after the July 1997 factional fighting in Phnom Penh, during which Mr. Hun Sen ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh from power.
It is a generation of voters whose elites dress in military fatigues to play paintball on weekends rather than to fight civil wars, while others stream out of the country in the hundreds of thousands to find work, seeing little opportunity at home.
Mr. Rainsy said that a government responsible for rampant social and economic ills would have fallen long ago in a democracy, and that there was a growing realization that in order to continue to survive, “the CPP must suppress or slowly kill democracy.”
“This will be the name of the game in the foreseeable future. There are many possible scenarios in this context: increasing repression, political assassinations, state terrorism, state of emergency, coup d’etat,” he said.
“The elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018 could be cancelled or postponed or become farcical with the regime losing its legitimacy and Cambodia becoming a pariah state.”
However, Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said the CPP’s history of crushing dissent while keeping a veneer of democracy should not be forgotten, particularly in light of its record of bending the National Election Committee (NEC) to its will come election time.
“Cancelling them would take away the one thing they can still claim happens in Cambodia, which is periodic elections, regardless of however ridiculously unfair and unfree they can sometimes be,” he said.
“In any case, you don’t need to delay or cancel the election. We know the NEC is going to be the final arbiter, and the NEC already appears to be captured,” he added.
The NEC has already announced four delays in the start to its key task of rebuilding the national voter list before commune elections next year. And despite being reformed following the disputed 2013 election, its administrative wing remains headed by CPP stalwart Tep Nytha, who ran that election.
The man once presumed to be a check on Mr. Nytha’s power—his deputy, the former rights monitor Ny Chakrya—was among those jailed by the government last month in its sweep of prominent critics.
But the increasingly younger and discontented voting public that is now sold on promises of free elections in 2018 may not be inclined to take lying down an extended campaign of dirty tricks that sees the CPP win an election only by breaking the opposition.
“The big problem has not come yet,” Ou Ritthy, a prominent political blogger who organizes the “Politikoffee” weekly meetings in Phnom Penh, said of the recent chaos and arrests.
“The big problem is when the government has to deal with the people concerning the electoral management. The public is now expecting more free, fair and transparent elections in 2017 and 2018,” he said.
“If the government continues to break up the opposition illegitimately, the problem is not over, because the public who support the opposition would rise up.”
Despite the potential of a forced neutering of the CNRP, the movement against the CPP is bigger than one party, said Vanna Hay, 29, an opposition supporter and energy specialist who works in Japan.
“I don’t think the government run by the CPP can break up the opposition party. But if we have to say they succeed in breaking up the opposition party, their problems will not be over,” said Mr. Hay, who plans to return to campaign in the 2018 elections.
“The citizens will all stand up, and protest against the government until we have new leaders,” he added. “Even if they can kick [CNRP] President Sam Rainsy or Vice-President Kem Sokha away, the young people and people like me will stand up.”
Either way, Mr. Hay said he believed the CPP could no longer take the same game plan it brought to past elections, as it no longer controlled the media.
“Almost all of the citizens in Cambodia now are frustrated by the local media, such as radio, TV and local newspapers, and they rely on news from Facebook, where almost everything is being shared,” he said.
“Also, they follow the news with Radio Free Asia, Voice of America or Radio France International—those are the independent news platforms bringing real news to them.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government was not concerned by the frequent reports and discussions of state violence and corruption that form the bulk of the broadcasts on such stations, saying that few people cared.
“Radio Free Asia and Voice of America just repeat the same rhetoric about corruption and abuse of power, but at the commune level, the people are worried about water, security and the prices of services. We are making people satisfied on these issues,” he said.
Yet it was concerns about rampant corruption and government abuses of power being shared on social media that drove much of the CNRP’s success in the 2013 election—and which were found to be the most pressing issues in the Asia Foundation’s 2014 survey.
Corruption was cited as Cambodia’s biggest problem by the largest margin of respondents—29 percent—followed by unemployment and poverty at 17 percent, the “economy in general” at 13 percent and political disputes and rivalries at 8 percent.
Sam Inn, a longtime NGO leader who last year helped start the Grassroots Democracy Party, said the recent attempts to prevent education of the public by going after human rights monitors and political analysts was like trying to put toothpaste back into its tube.
“I doubt their strategy can be effective. The awareness of the people is already there now. You cannot delete that from the people’s hearts and minds. They know their rights and they aspire for change,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan has long held that the ruling party remains committed to free elections and said on Sunday the government was working on mitigating the large structural problems like corruption and the fallow labor market greeting youth entering the workforce.
“We have a rectangular strategy in phase three working hard to train our youth in terms of vocational training, so it will be easier for them to find jobs, and we have made many efforts to expand the labor market…through attracting more investment,” Mr. Eysan said.
“But even Vietnam and Thailand, who have more development than our country, also have a workforce working outside their countries. For Cambodia, the overseas jobs pay better than in the country,” he added.
“With such income, the livelihoods of the families of these laborers have become better, and their houses have become bigger if we go to villages.”
Yet Mr. Rainsy said it was clear the CPP, led by Mr. Hun Sen, had stopped caring about fixing the country’s issues and was now focused on securing its own survival.
“Hun Sen is very smart when it comes to clinging to power, meaning continuously making clever or cynical tactical moves aimed at the elimination of his perceived or potential enemies and rivals,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Hence the country’s mismanagement and the growing popular discontent because of nepotism, corruption, persistent poverty, social injustice, impunity and increasing political repression,” he added.
“The deadly threat faced by the CPP is not the CNRP, but the CPP itself with its anachronism, its internal contradictions and its irrelevance. How can a political dinosaur survive in modern times?”
(Additional reporting by Kang Sothear)