Cambodian politics has never been more interesting. The general election taken place in late July 2013 delivered a rather devastating result for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by the forever Prime Minister Hun Sen. Having been in power for almost three decades, Hun Sen has become the longest-running elected leader of Southeast Asia. Yet, the latest poll may seem to suggest that the end of the Hun Sen era is nigh.
Hun Sen at the July Election
The CPP struggled to gain a landslide election this time, only achieving 66 out of 123 seats. Unlike the election of 2008 when the CPP successfully acquired 90 seats, the CPP’s poor performance was due to a myriad of reasons. So far, the sole opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), headed by Sam Rainsy, has refused to accept the result of the election. It boycotted the opening of the parliament last month which witnessed the forming of yet another Hun Sen government whose term will expire in the next five years.
Hun Sen might have miscalculated in allowing Rainsy to return home shortly before the election. Running away from the law, Rainsy was later granted a royal pardon; the decision which put an end to a nearly four year period during which he had been in self-imposed exile avoiding an 11-year prison sentence on charges of disinformation and destruction of public property. Even though Rainsy did not participate in the election, his presence in Cambodia lent a strong spiritual support for the CNRP which won 57 seats, in comparison with only 29 seats in the previous election.
Some speculated that Rainsy’s return to Phnom Penh was “an order” from Washington which has begun to exert its influence on the Hun Sen regime, in the face of rising Chinese domination of Cambodia. Cambodia’s accommodation policy vis-à-vis China has stirred up a sense of urgency for the United States to re-engage with Southeast Asia once considered America’s sphere of influence.
But there are more serious problems behind the CPP’s decline of popularity. For one thing, the problem of corruption has long rotten the political structure and weakened democratic institutions. Hun Sen has effectively created a web of patronage that linked up politics and businesses. He sits on top of politics which has been nurtured by money from powerful conglomerates and cultivated by Hun Sen’s own cronies. Those out of his network see no chance of establishing themselves in politics.
Hun Sen’s domination of politics has made him complacent, thus overlooking critical problems facing the nation, including the rising poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. His reign has been too long, leading to the phenomenon of political inertia. New generations of Cambodia are now looking for new political alternatives. The CNRP has come to fill in the gap.
It has been reported in Phnom Penh that currently, the two leaders from the two main parties, the CPP and CNRP, are now in negotiation, hoping to make a “political peace” so that the government can continue its duties. It is likely that Sam Rainsy will soon end his boycott and may accept Hun Sen’s offer of serving as the President of the House of Representative.
But peace here will be a short-term solution. For Hun Sen to regain his dominance, he must embark on serious political reforms, which could include the strengthening of independent institutions that will monitor the works of the government without fear and retribution. The government must also promote the role of non-state actors, such as NGOs, civil society organisations and other academic institutions, to give critical comments on the performance of the government. Also, a political space for the opposition must be widened. The practice of using judges to curb the voices of the opposition must be abolished.
If Hun Sen is willing to move ahead with these reforms, his chance of winning big next time might still be possible. But the patronage system put in place by Hun Sen himself may pull him back. Some of his cronies and supporters in the big businesses may walk away from the CPP after the July election. Therefore, the next five years are crucial for the survival of the CPP, and in particular for Hun Sen.
Yet, many in Phnom Penh are pessimistic about the CPP’s return to its glorious days. Some members of the Cambodian royal family even predicted that Hun Sen might be considering his exit plan, knowing that the chance of winning the next election in 2018 is slim. Hun Sen could also be plotting his successor—and one rumour is that he may nominate one of his sons to succeed him; this could represent a fatal strategy.
One thing one must bear in mind, what has happened in Cambodia is not unique to this small nation. Changes have occurred everywhere in Southeast Asia. From Indonesia to Myanmar, the wind of democratisation has swept the region. Cambodia is no exception.
If such wind really comes Cambodia’s way, possibly, one could see a new government in this country in 2018. This will not just bring new changes to Cambodia, but also to the ever complicated relations between Cambodia and Thailand.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.