Politics as Usual

The past 15 years of politics can neatly be summed up in four words: the CPP wins, again.

Hitting the newsstands on Aug 20, 1993, The Cambodia Daily never witnessed the triumph of Funcinpec in the UN-organized election just months earlier, and the Cambodian People’s Party was pretty much at its nadir.

But from that point forward, it was the CPP that went on the path toward political supremacy—at times by methods decidedly not consistent with democratic principles.

But, as the CPP reminds everyone, any serious discussion of post-conflict Cambodian politics really needs to begin at the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Borne at the head of a Vietnamese army, the group of Cambodian leaders that would become the CPP took power when the Khmer Rouge were ousted from Phnom Penh in early 1979 following a lightning military campaign. Many of the top officials of the newly formed People’s Republic of Kampuchea continue to be the dominant faces of the government—including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was made foreign affairs minister at the young old age of 29.

The PRK did not rule uncontested during the 1980s. From their jungle bases on the Thai border, several armed factions—including Norodom Sihanouk’s royalist forces, the republican fighters of Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge—continued to resist the rule of the new government and the Vietnamese occupation forces supporting it.

The Vietnamese eventually departed in late 1989 and the warring factions reached an agreement that led to the intervention of the UN and the 1993 election. The Khmer Rouge reneged on the agreement early on.

But while Funcinpec received the most National Assembly seats in 1993 election, dealing the CPP its only significant defeat in nearly 30 years, it is a fallacy to believe that the royalist party was ever the dominant political force in Cambodia.

Funcinpec never had as large a following, or as well organized a political machine, as the CPP. It comes as little surprise that Funcinpec was able to earn an election victory, given its strong association with the party’s founder, then-Prince Sihanouk, a man of unrivaled popularity and a nostalgic symbol of the comparative golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.

In many respects it was Norodom Sihanouk, and not Funcinpec, that won the 1993 election, incidentally offering Funcinpec a shot at political leadership.

But Funcinpec was never able to actually rule.

The CPP disputed the results of the election, and there was furtive talk of dividing the country. Eventually the parties were brought to the table and a coalition government formed, but so powerful was the CPP that Funcinpec had to yield to having a Funcinpec “first prime minister” and a CPP “second prime minister,” a concept that undermined the very meaning of the word “prime.”

It was not long after this that The Cambodia Daily came on the scene.

On Sept 21, 1993, the National Assembly overwhelmingly (but not unanimously) passed the Constitution. As an example of how far the Daily has come since those days, not a single article from the following day’s issue came from the paper’s staff.

Days later, Prince Sihanouk was crowned King Sihanouk, promising, as he told the Daily, to “reign, not govern,” and signed the Constitution, officially bringing it into effect. The UN Transitional Authority left the country in the immediate aftermath of the Constitution’s


Much of the next year consisted of unsuccessful attempts to bring the Khmer Rouge to the bargaining table and increased offensives against Khmer Rouge-held areas.

The struggle againstthe Khmer Rouge led to the first significant fracturing within Funcinpec in 1994, as then-Finance Minister Sam Rainsy and Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh threatened to resign over proposed legislation to outlaw the Khmer Rouge. The law was passed anyway, and in October 1994 Sam Rainsy was ousted from his position. Prince Sirivudh resigned a few days later in an apparent act of commiseration with his colleague.

October 1994 also saw the first time that anti-corruption legislation was presented to the National Assembly. Those two pieces of legislation drafted by Funcinpec and Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers to tackle graft were handed to the Assembly. Both died in committee, beginning the series of delays to passing the anti-corruption law that continue nearly 14 years later.

In November 1995, Sam Rainsy launched his opposition Khmer Nation Party. Shortly before the 1998 national election, the party was renamed the Sam Rainsy Party, though not willingly.

At the time, a splinter group that many believe was backed by the CPP claimed to have the rights to the KNP name and the courts backed this faction. As a result, the Sam Rainsy Party name was a way to make sure that such a situation could not repeat itself: It would be nigh impossible to say that someone other than Sam Rainsy really led the Sam Rainsy Party.

The KNP received a crash course in the harsher side of Cambodian politics on March 30, 1997, when four grenades were hurled into the middle of a hundreds-strong demonstration outside the old National Assembly on Sothearos Boulevard.

Grenade attacks have been an unfortunate fixture of the political process in Cambodia. Thirty-one people were injured in two attacks on BLDP supporters on October 1, 1995—including a grenade hurled into the home of prominent political heavyweight and former prime minister Son Sann. In August of 2001, two people were injured when hand grenades were lobbed into Funcinpec’s headquarters.

But no such attack was as deadly as the March 1997 attack, which killed at least 19 and injured over 150 hundred. Gore and carnage spread across the park where those innocent people died.

Witnesses claimed that the men who threw the grenades escaped through the compound of Hun Sen’s bodyguards. The prime minister and his bodyguard unit have vigorously denied having a hand in the attack.

Hun Sen, then second prime minister, did take action: He demanded on the day of the attack that the leaders of the demonstration be arrested—a threat that was apparently tempered at the request of then-first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh.

Because an American was wounded in the attack, an investigation was conducted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the findings of that probe have never been released. Nobody has ever been arrested for the brutal attack.

Over the course of 1995, 1996, and into 1997 tensions arose in the never particularly friendly relationship between Funcinpec and the CPP. Both sides actively courted the Khmer Rouge, both sides had troops and arms and both sides had been enemies since the fall of Democratic Kampuchea.

What started as wars of words between the co-prime ministers led to isolated street skirmishes and eventually came to a head on July 5, 1997, when Funcinpec and CPP forces engaged in fierce combat in Phnom Penh. By the end of the second day it was plain that the CPP forces were victorious.

Coup or not, the factional fighting of July 1997 left no doubt that the CPP was in control. Prince Ranariddh fled the country, was stripped of his prime minister position, branded an outlaw and not allowed to return to the country until the following year. Funcinpec still held onto the first prime minister position, but it was a figurehead post at best.

In the 1998 election it was little surprise that the victorious party, with 64 seats, was the CPP and not the hamstrung Funcinpec, which captured 43-a loss of 15 seats. The Sam Rainsy Party managed to pick up 15 seats.

The BLDP, holder of 10 seats in the first mandate, had disintegrated by this point and its successor, the Son Sann Party, could not generate enough voter interest to win a seat. Molinaka, the onl“y small party to ever win an Assembly seat, having held one in the first mandate, was also shut out. This hardly came as a surprise, because ahead of the election the formula for calculating how seats are won was changed to an equation that strongly favored larger parties, making it nigh impossible for a small party to win anything.

Following the election, the CPP and Funcinpec once again formed a coalition after a short period of wrangling with the SRP falling into its place as the official opposition.

The following year the first Senate elections were held to create the upper house of Parliament. The CPP also dominated this poll taking the vast majority of seats. Following the first commune election of 2002-which officially gave the CPP control of over 98 percent of communes-senators were largely elected by commune councilors rather than the general public. This meant the CPP extended its control of the upper house considerably in the 2006 Senate election.

The Senate is seen as little more than a rubber stamp by most observers, quickly giving its assent to pretty much everything that passes through the National Assembly, often with next to no debate.

In the months heading up to the 2003 election, Funcinpec began to appear to be chafing under the yoke of the CPP. Whether due to actual disagreements of opinion or perhaps just an attempt to carve out an identity with voters, Funcinpec began to openly criticize its senior partner in government.

Then in February 2003 a senior adviser to Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Om Radsady, was gunned down as he left a restaurant in Phnom Penh. Royalist officials labeled the killing as politically motivated. Police, however, quickly concluded that the robbery was the motive, and two men were eventually arrested for the killing.

Following the 2003 election, the CPP was victorious again with 73 out of 123 Assembly seats, but still did not have the two-thirds of seats necessary to form the government on its own. Seeking to bargain for positions in the government and the Assembly, Funcinpec (26 seats) and the SRP (24 seats) formed an “Alliance of Democrats” to challenge the CPP.

Both sides remained adamant, provoking a deadlock that kept the government from forming for nearly a year, before Funcinpec ultimately abandoned the SRP and once again took to bed with the CPP.

Sam Rainsy accused Prince Ranariddh of having accepted bribes to join the government. The prince responded to the allegations by filing a defamation lawsuit against the opposition leader. In February 2005, the National Assembly voted to strip Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity. In anticipation of the vote and fearing arrest, Sam Rainsy fled the country and did not return until February 2006.

Following his return, Sam Rainsy met behind closed doors with Hun Sen. It is uncertain exactly what transpired at that meeting, but not long after the SRP proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would reduce the number of Assembly seats needed to form a government.

The amendment meant that a party only required 50 percent plus one seats to form a government, rather than two-thirds of seats that had been required since 1993. The intent was supposedly to prevent the deadlock that occurred after the 2003 election from repeating itself. It was quickly passed.

In 2006 the wheels finally came off of Funcinpec. Already suffering from diminishing returns at the ballot box, the party took another blow when Prince Ranariddh suddenly resigned his chairmanship of the National Assembly-a post the CPP then assumed. In October, Funcinpec ousted the prince from the party presidency during a specially convened congress.

This removal prompted the prince to form his own Norodom Ranariddh Party, which effectively split the royalist vote and accounted for much of the devastating hits that the royalist political parties took at the 2007 commune and 2008 National Assembly elections. At present the royalist parties are projected to have only 4 seats between them—a far cry from the 58 they snagged in 1993.

The SRP, for its part, made solid gains in the commune elections, but only took two extra seats in the 2008 election, perhaps in part because of competition from the recently formed Human Rights Party, which grabbed three seats. The SRP alleged massive voter fraud.

Every election in Cambodia has suffered from claims of not being up to “international standards” and 2008 was no exception.

Taking home 90 seats in 2008, the CPP doesn’t need to concern itself with the 50-percent-plus-one rule, having well over two-thirds of the Assembly under its control. It is now set to take every minister position for itself and has further consolidated its control over all branches of government and the security apparatus. Also, with so many seats the party could rightly claim that it has an overwhelming mandate from the people.

So, yes, 15 years later, the CPP has won, again.


Related Stories

Latest News