Cambodia’s 2008 election: the end of opposition?

About the author
Kheang Un is currently on leave from his position as assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and is at present a visiting research fellow at the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy

On 27 July 2008, Cambodia held its fourth parliamentary elections since the 1993 United Nations imposed democracy; eleven political parties contested the elections, but only the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) were credible contestants. The preliminary results show that the CPP has captured approximately 60% of the total votes, giving the party control of ninety seats in the 123-seat national assembly. This outcome signifies the ever growing power of the CPP and its de facto leader, Hun Sen, who has served as Cambodia's chief executive since 1985.

The ruling party: mechanisms of dominance

The critics and opponents of the regime point out that the success of the Cambodian People's Party is derived from the party's control over the state machinery and resources - a legacy of its previous monopoly of power under Vietnamese-backed socialism in the 1980s. The CPP uses these resources effectively to disenfranchise voters, and curtail opposition parties' ability to effectively contest the elections.

Kheang Un is currently on leave from his position as assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and is at present a visiting research fellow at the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy

Opposition parties were quick to denounce the results as non-free and non-fair, and urge the public and the international community to reject them. Opposition parties' accusations included political intimidation and violence. They also cited a biased electoral machinery which in their view was guilty of several infractions: colluding with pro-CPP local authorities to delete potential Sam Rainsy Party supporters from voting-lists, relocating polling-stations shortly before the start of voting to confuse opposition supporters, and inflating the number of illegitimate voters by issuing fraudulent "1018" forms that allowed the bearer to vote.

Opposition parties also accused the National Election Committee (NEC) - through its inability and/or unwillingness to enforce election-campaign laws - of perpetuating an unequal playing-field in favour of the ruling CPP. The election clearly fell short of certain internationally accepted standards of freeness and fairness; but without evidence of massive fraud that could have significantly distorted the result - and particularly in light of the CPP's wide margin of victory - local and international observers declared the results acceptable.

Despite the opposition outcry, the 2008 parliamentary elections saw less violence and intimidation than previous elections, better technical organisation, and open and vibrant campaigning across the country. The CPP's clear advantages are the result of well-calculated planning to preserve its dominant role. Since the 1993 elections, the ruling CPP has manipulated the electoral process and politics to prop up its control and legitimacy.

Also in openDemocracy about Cambodian politics and history:

David Hayes, "Thinking of Cambodia" (17 April 2003)

Var Hong Ashe, "Cambodia: surviving the Khmer Rouge" (15 April 2005)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

However, it is important to note that the strategies of manipulation have changed substantially from the initial use of intimidation and violence to a form of patronage politics using material inducements such as individual gifts and construction of temples, irrigation networks, bridges and roads. By the late 1990s, having weakened the royalist Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif (Funcinpec) party in 1997 and skilfully manipulated the patronage linkages to business tycoons and military leaders, the CPP came to control chains of personalised networks that permeate and supersede state institutions and provide the party with tremendous resources. The CPP's development funds that flow to local communities are almost double that of the state.

The ensuing gift-giving by the CPP has great appeal to rural voters. And while intimidation by the CPP is significantly reduced in scale, it would be very difficult for rural voters not to vote for the CPP upon receiving gifts from the party. The level of the CPP's real or perceived surveillance capability is also strong. Its long history and deep presence in Cambodia's hinterland means that the CPP is a bottom-heavy party. Its grassroots character, compounded by the relative geographical immobility of rural voters and the fact that everyone knows everyone else in a village, make it hard for rural voters to receive gifts from the CPP and then renege on the obligation created by the gift.

While using gifts to attract votes, the CPP prevented the opposition parties from having access to the mass media. Opposition parties were granted the freedom to publish newspapers whose contents were critical of the government; at times this criticism is irresponsible and insulting to government officials.

But the limited readership and circulation of newspapers - given their cost, and the low relatively low level of literacy - mean that only 9% of Cambodians read newspapers on a regular basis while 90% watch televisions and listened to radio. This renders print media ineffective in disseminating opposition politics beyond the city; while electronic media is firmly under CPP control. All six Cambodian television stations are either affiliated with or owned by the CPP and its leaders. Among the thirteen radio stations, only two are fully independent of the government. Several journalists have been killed, apparently in politically motivated cases, while others have been jailed on charged of defamation and disinformation.

Many critics have suggested that unequal access to the media was the most significant factor that contributed to the opposition parties' failure to capture a plurality of votes. This allegation has not been substantiated by empirical research; but the experiences of other transitional and post-conflict societies suggest as a matter of principle that unequal access to the media creates an uneven playing-field; this allows the dominant party to monopolise the provision of information and thus shape voters' perceptions. Cambodia is no exception.

The opposition: failures of unity

Although intimidation and irregularities might have played a role, it was not the decisive factor that determined Cambodia's electoral outcome. The CPP could have won without resorting to these tactics; their use reflected the party's uncertainty over the heavy risks - to power and wealth - that the loss of an election would entail. As a whole, the CPP's strength owes much to its popular "development policies" and its success in bringing about and maintaining social and political stability; but at least part of it can be attributed to the opposition parties' weaknesses.

Sam Rainsy, head of the SRP, attempted to configure opposition politics by appealing to urban voters, young people, and victims of social and economic injustice who might want to change current conditions in Cambodia that are marred by corruption, a fragile rule of law, and weak government accountability.

These phenomena, however, may for many Cambodians be counterbalanced by others. For example, although widespread corruption exists, its institutionalised and predictable nature has normalised the process. The changes in the economic sphere - including a large inflow of overseas development assistance, expansion of various sectors (garment manufacturing, tourism, services and construction) - have combined to allow the economy to grow at around 10% per year. Such growth is associated in many voters' minds with political stability, and an accompanying fear of instability should the CPP lose the elections. Taken together, this combination of processes deterred many people from voting for the opposition parties.

For several months leading up to the election, the SRP suffered defections of both local supporters and party officials, both within the country and overseas (for elements of Cambodia's large diaspora also play a significant role in the country's internal politics). The Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen used the green pastures of the CPP to lure opposition party leaders to defect by awarding them positions in the government. Although no evidence exists regarding how many voters the SRP might have lost as a result of these waves of defections, these developments demonstrate that the CPP made inroads into the SRP's turf, forcing the SRP to spend a tremendous amount of time and effort engaging in damage- control and putting its house in order.

As during previous elections, the opposition parties were unable to form a united front against the CPP. Although the NRP proposed the formation of a "union of democrats", this idea fell on deaf ears as far as the HRP and SRP were concerned. Instead each opposition political party fought against the other in order to present itself as the only viable alternative for those who are dissatisfied with the CPP.

Preah Vihear: the lucky card

Nationalism continues to be a critical political trigger-point that political parties have tried to ride and exploit between election cycles and during election campaigns. Cambodians live in a small state situated between two larger countries and historical rivals - Vietnam and Thailand, both of which have in the past occupied Cambodian territory and continue to have ongoing border disputes with Cambodia; and many as a result have a sense of insecurity, real or imagined, about what they may perceive as their neighbours' ill intentions towards Cambodia.

The opposition parties have used such sentiments and what evidence can be used to sustain them in accusing the CPP of being soft in defending national sovereignty; for example, they claim that the CPP has allowed millions of Vietnamese immigrants to settle and vote illegally in Cambodia, and that both Vietnam and Thailand encroach on Cambodian territory.

These opposition parties attempted to capitalise on such matters in the 2008 election too; their propaganda declared that a vote for them was a vote for the preservation of national independence and sovereignty. But circumstances allowed the ruling party/government to pre-empt this argument and trump the opposition parties over who was the better defender of Cambodia's national interest.

The key issue was the listing by Unesco of Preah Vihear temple - an 11th-century Angkor-style temple located along the Thai-Cambodian border - as a world-heritage site. The government's successful negotiation with its Thai counterparts was announced on 7 July 2008 - three weeks before the election - and survived bitter Thai opposition that seemed at one point likely to lead to armed confrontation. The Preah Vihear designation is a victory that the Cambodian people celebrated with joy; it also left them with an image of the CPP as capable of defending Cambodia's sovereignty.

The controversy over Preah Vihear helped refocus press and popular attention more on the issue of Thailand's attempt to "swallow Cambodian territory" and less on the domestic contest. In this sense the timing of the stand-off with the Thais in the aftermath of the Unesco designation was perfect in helping the ruling party in the election.

What next?

The election of 27 July 2008, notwithstanding all reservations, legitimately gives the Cambodian People's Party a monopoly on power. The challenge for the party now is whether it is able to lead the country onto an inclusive and sustainable growth path. In the absence of such development, and in the event of a reduction of material benefits flowing to Cambodia's rural majority, opposition to the CPP's leadership may increase - possibly triggering a return to suppression, violence and political instability.