The July election was a historic moment in Cambodian politics. For the first time since the 1993 election arranged by the United Nations, the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), looks vulnerable. But what is even more astonishing is that voters are not afraid to express their political beliefs and to criticize political parties in public. The sheer number of people who turned up in support of their preferred candidates was also unprecedented, and clearly shows the extent to which democratic values have taken root in the Kingdom.
Despite grabbing 55 out of 123 seats, the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), vehemently rejects the election results, unless its charge of widespread irregularities are properly addressed by an independent investigating body. But the CPP has flatly ruled out that option, arguing that the National Election Committee (NEC) is the only legitimate institution to resolve any electoral disputes.
Talks have been on and off between the CPP and the CNRP, but thus far there’s been no progress. According to the CPP’s source, the CNRP wants the post of National Assembly president as a condition of the deal, but the CPP’s leaders are only willing to offer the post of the vice president and four chairmanships of the parliamentary commissions. At the same time, both parties have issued multiple threats against each other. The CNRP vows that it will hold mass protests nationwide, while the CPP warns of possible violent clashes and legal consequences.
Without a deal in sight, the CPP asked King Sihamoni to convene the first parliamentary meeting on September 23, which the opposition boycotted. In response, Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s president, rolled up his sleeves and visited Western capitals to urge their leaders not to recognize the CPP-led government and to cut off all foreign aid to the country. He left his deputy, Kem Sokha, to rally support for mass demonstrations across the country. However, Rainsy’s foreign trips might not provide much leverage, given that both the U.S. and the European Union have maintained very diplomatic tones since the July 28 election.
There’s no easy answer to the current political stalemate. The CPP cannot afford to give more than what it has already offered the CNRP. As Prime Minister Hun Sen clearly says, giving the position of the National Assembly president to the CNRP would only lead to dysfunctional government, and the CPP doesn’t want its fifth mandate to be preoccupied with one deadlock after another. Further, the CPP also needs to make enough positions available to its senior officials in the National Assembly, especially at a time when factional rivalries could bring the party to the brink of complete disarray.
Another concern is that a very generous deal could be seen as a victory for the opposition and, more importantly, could imply that the ruling elites have something to hide in terms of election irregularities. The CPP wants people to see its concession as an act of reconciliation for the sake of the country, not as a sign of weakness. The CPP is also very cautious about the prospect that its opponents might become a potential threat to its survival in the future if given too much power in the decision-making process in parliament.
The CNRP is also under tremendous pressure not to make a quick deal. The downfall of the royalist party, the National United Front for Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCIPEC), is a constant reminder to opposition leaders that they cannot recklessly rush a deal. They are also concerned that if the CPP reneges on its promises, there’s almost nothing they can do to hold the ruling elites accountable. The implications of a failed deal could potentially be damaging to the CNRP, and many voters won’t be willing to listen to the opposition complaints again, as they’ve had enough of the FUNCINPEC party since the 1993 election.