The results of the Cambodian election of July 28 this year shocked many. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won just 68 out of 123 seats, losing 22 seats. The situation quickly became tense as hundreds of soldiers and heavily armored vehicles were deployed in the capital city following a violent clash between police and voters, in which two military police vehicles were attacked and set on fire. Several major roads and districts surrounding Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence were blocked. The nation was beset by confusion and uncertainty.
There has been no shortage of speculation, especially among opposition groups and some foreign observers, that the reign of the CPP is coming to an end, and that its days in government are numbered. That is unrealistic. The CPP is here to stay, and despite setbacks it has again won a majority and can form a new government on its own. What is clear, however, is that the CPP is facing its toughest challenge yet.
The CPP has made comebacks before. In the 1993 election arranged by the United Nations, the CPP lost to the royalist party, the National United Front for Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC). Despite the shock defeat, the CPP’s leaders were quick to adopt reforms and modernize. They gradually learned to make democracy work in their favor and splurged hundreds of millions of dollars on pet projects, including roads, schools, health centers and pagodas. Their strategies paid off, and they have won every election since 1998.
However, the rise of the CPP as the hegemonic party has also sown the seeds of its current failings. Following an overwhelming victory in the 2008 election, the party grew complacent. The CPP’s leaders did not feel the pressure to reform or modernize. They saw the party as still strong and resilient, capable of achieving further landslide victories with ease.
Even as the ruling elites relaxed, however, Cambodia’s political landscape was being transformed at unprecedented speed, reshaping the electoral landscape. The changes have helped create a level playing field, offering new openings for the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), to advance its policy agenda and undermine the CPP’s monopoly over key sectors such as traditional media outlets. Three major factors have played a role here: demography, technology and socio-economics. Their implications for Cambodian politics are deep and dramatic.
Cambodia’s youth has emerged as its most potent political force. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Cambodians are under the age of 24, and up to 70 percent are under 35. Unlike their parents, these younger voters have no memories of the Khmer Rouge, and most have very little interest in that history. They tend to be more vocal on a wide range of issues, such as social injustice, inequality and corruption. Both the CPP and the CNRP are working tirelessly to woo this youth cohort, which has played a pivotal role in the CNRP’s success. Younger Cambodians don’t just vote for the CNRP; they often work vigorously to mobilize support.
Meanwhile, Cambodians have been adopting technology at an unprecedented rate. In 2011 the number of cell phones in use was roughly equivalent to the entire population. Further, according to social media marketing and advertising agency Social Media Plus, 2.46 million Cambodians were using the Internet in 2012, and almost one million had Facebook accounts. With just one click, information can be shared, in a way that makes it impossible for the government to censor news it doesn’t like. Not only does social media facilitate the free flow of information and facts, it also provides youth with a platform to express their views and coordinate activities, and CNRP supporters have taken advantage of this.