Prior to the 2013 election, Cambodia’s opposition parties were often characterized as divided, weak and poor. For the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), they were simply a subject of ridicule. In the aftermath of the CPP’s landslide victory in the 2008 election, opposition supporters had cause to wonder whether it was the beginning of the end for the opposition in Cambodia, let alone expect them to achieve a surge in popular support.
Thus, the stunning performance by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the July 28 election came as a huge shock to most people. For the first time, the opposition had emerged as a real alternative to the dominant party. After capturing 55 out of 123 seats, the CNRP insisted that in fact they had won the election given the massive irregularities that had been involved. Talks have been on and off between the CPP and the CNRP in an attempt to end the political impasse, but to date there has been no progress. Each party has blamed the other for failing to make the necessary compromise.
The opposition has demanded an independent investigation into election irregularities, while the ruling elites have insisted that the National Election Committee (NEC) is the only legitimate institution to resolve electoral disputes. With no resolution in sight, the CNRP has issued an ultimatum: reach a deal by late December, or it will hold larger and longer demonstrations nationwide until the CPP caves. The opposition has also been using mass protests as leverage to force the ruling elites to relinquish more power, although this has yet to be successful. The most pressing question for the CNRP’s leaders probably relates to the nature of their strategies to end the current deadlock and to win the next election.
After many rounds of painful talks, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) finally merged with the Human Rights Party (HRP) to establish the CNRP in July 2012. The merger excited many opposition supporters, and ended years of bickering and infighting among Cambodia’s opposition groups. Although the merger significantly boosted popular support for the opposition, it would be an overstatement to suggest that it was the only factor responsible for the CNRP’s substantial gains in the July 28 election. Over the past few years, Cambodia’s political landscape has undergone rapid transformation, and its implications are both deep and dramatic.
The opposition has benefited greatly from demographic changes. In 2012 it is estimated that around 70 per cent of Cambodians were under the age of 35. Many of these young voters didn’t just vote for the CNRP; they were also fiercely mobilizing public support for the opposition. Yet among these younger cohorts, some are hardliners who have been insisting that the opposition accept nothing less than a victory or the removal of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his close associates.
In an added complication, the CNRP depends heavily on this group to mobilize people to join their mass demonstrations nationwide. It is no coincidence that opposition leaders often consult their strongest supporters at Freedom Park before negotiating a deal to end the current political impasse, because these younger voters have been risking all to help them challenge the CPP’s domination. Further, they are very vocal about government affairs, both in public and on social media such as Facebook and YouTube. During the election campaigns, given CNRP’s severe resource constraints, many of them financially supported themselves, with little help from their leaders.
Although these hardliners play an extremely important role in the CNRP’s current election gains, opposition leaders must strike a delicate balance here. They need to know that many of their supporters are moderate or at least less extreme than their counterparts. Of course, they also want to see the CNRP being elected to power, so that some of its policies can be implemented for the benefit of Cambodia’s ordinary people, especially the poor. Yet they also want the process of change to happen without endangering peace and stability in the country and without seriously affecting everyday Cambodian life.
It is also reasonable to say that the moderate opposition supporters might tolerate the ongoing political deadlock given the difficult situations that the CNRP leaders are facing, and that it will take time before a good deal can be reached by both political parties. But the opposition leaders cannot take their supporters’ patience for granted. If the current situation drags on for too long without any solution in sight and if subsequently begins to hurt the economy, voters will blame not only the CPP but also the opposition for putting ego before the national interest. Thus, the CNRP’s leaders need to be very realistic about what they can do to end the current political impasse, rather than simply responding to the demands of the hardliners.
Another problem facing the CNRP’s leaders is whether they have the capacity and resources to lead the new government if elected. The current election gains don’t necessarily mean that voters fully trust the CNRP’s leaders to run the country. In fact, voters are right to be concerned given the opposition’s past track record. Prior to the merger, the SRP and the HRP were locked in a war of words, accusing each other of selling out to the ruling elites or having hidden agendas. They dug up any damaging stories they could find to destroy the legitimacy and credibility of their rivals.