Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen secured a fresh five-year mandate in Sunday’s election. However, his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) suffered a substantially reduced majority amid claims that the government is looking tired and old after failing for decades to tackle perennial issues like corruption.
Polling day was also plagued by allegations of cheating. Indelible ink, which is designed to prevent people from voting more than once, washed off easily. Names were left off voter lists and there were unsubstantiated claims that Vietnamese were being brought in from across the border to vote for the CPP.
One riot erupted near the capital, two police vehicles were torched and troops were deployed into the area with barricades erected for blocks around Hun Sen’s house. By Monday morning, however, the violence had subsided and the riot had proved to be an isolated incident.
As counting continued the opposition had secured unprecedented gains, winning 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, an increase of 26. Meanwhile, the CPP suffered a dramatic fall, winning just 66 seats, compared with 90 seats five years ago.
None of the smaller political outfits won any seats, including the once formidable royalist Funcinpec Party which had hoped to reclaim some of its past glory.
The government had expected a victory, plus or minus five seats, ensuring the CPP held onto its two-thirds majority, which it viewed as a key that would enable it to re-write the constitution.
These plans were ruined, however, by an emerging youth vote combined with the votes of former CPP loyalists who were angered by incessant land grabbing, corruption and a culture of impunity among the politically connected. Moreover, online media broke the traditional stranglehold of the government-friendly press on election coverage during campaigns.
A $10 per month pension plan for senior citizens, a pay rise for bureaucrats and a minimum wage also gave opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) an edge over the CPP which offered little but more of the same.
The result sends a clear message to Hun Sen, by far Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader, and the CPP, which has held an iron-grip on power since the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge from the capital in 1979.
Throughout campaigning the CPP appeared lethargic while the CNRP was supported by tens of thousands of supporters rallying on motorcycles, forming flash mobs and partying Gangnam Style in city parks, demanding change from a government that has seen always change as an anathema.
Unless the CPP can be reformed and made more relevant for a younger audience concerned with obtaining well-paid jobs and improved living standards, the party will see its decline continue. That could have wider regional ramifications, as Hun Sen enjoys strong relations with Vietnam, China and Thailand. Rainsy, however, does not.
Rainsy has rejected the results and called for an independent committee to be established to investigate irregularities and their impact on the election.
Election monitors say it’s still too early to judge whether this poll was free and fair. However, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) called for reforming the National Election Committee (NEC) after it had overseen the use of indelible ink that failed to pass muster and clouded electoral results.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.