Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s Eerie Silence

Hun Sen is returned to power with a much slimmer majority. Will protests ensue?

Cambodia’s Eerie Silence
Credit: Wikicommons

An eerie silence has descended on Phnom Penh as strategists within the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) digest the results of last Sunday’s election, which handed an embarrassing and uncomfortable win to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

His 13-seat majority in the National Assembly would be considered a solid win in most countries but in Cambodia, where Hun Sen has ruled with an iron grip for two-and-a-half decades, that margin is slim and compromised by alleged cheating that favored the ruling party.

Fears that cheats might prosper in this poll were common as campaigning came to an end late last week, when hundreds of thousands of people began the arduous task of travelling home, heading to remote provinces to cast their ballots. Analysts said that most had since delayed their return back to Phnom Penh amid scaremongering and wild rumors of opposition protests taking to the streets where a potential showdown with the government, police and the military seems unavoidable.

A vigil was held by Sam Rainsy at a memorial to commemorate the 1997 grenade attack which killed 16 of his supporters. About 800 people, including many monks, turned out to pay their respects, and the site will provide a probable venue for future protests. 

“Sunday was the election, Monday was a public holiday and people should already be back from the villages where they went to vote. But many are staying put because they’re frightened of what might happen next,” one long term observer, who declined to be named, said.

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Across the capital, businesses were struggling to re-open without staff. Anxiety has been fuelled by troop deployments and reports that people were hoarding food and water.

City blocks around Hun Sen’s house remained barricaded while the prime minister has said nothing since Sunday’s poll which resulted in the CPP losing its cherished two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. It won 68 seats, down from 90, in the 123-seat parliament.

Adding insult to injury were the results for the children of prominent CPP politicians who had attempted to enter parliament but were rebuffed by an angry electorate, including Hun Sen’s son Hun Many, who had urged the nation’s youth to vote for no change and to maintain the status quo.

“Change” was the catch cry of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) which had captured the imagination of the nation’s youth and traditional CPP supporters, angered by rampant corruption, land grabbing and a culture of impunity that protects the well-heeled, known locally as the Khmer Riche.

The CNRP were delivered 55 seats in the assembly, up from 29, although opposition leader Sam Rainsy rejected the result saying his party had won the poll but the rigging of electoral rolls had tilted the vote in favor of the CPP.

Gavin Greenwood, a security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates likened the results to the recent Malaysian elections where Prime Minister Najib Razak was also returned with a sharply reduced majority.

“It was an interesting election result — on the surface similar to MalaysiaBurma and even Singapore where entrenched parties have seen the sand below their feet shift in recent polls,” he said.

“However, such results are double edged for the opposition as the very narrowing of the gap can add legitimacy to the ancien regime while eroding the authority of key political leaders by emphasizing their inability to deliver or forcing them into a position of compromise.”

Independent Cambodian-based political analyst Lao Mong Hay echoed those sentiments and said Hun Sen – renowned as the strongman of Cambodian politics — was now a falling star, while Sam Rainsy and CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha were in the ascendancy.

Independent elections monitors are yet to announce whether these elections were free or fair although the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) have questioned the independence of the National Election Committee (NEC) and urged reform.

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Nevertheless Lao Mong Hay said these elections were only partially free at best with “a lot irregularities, threats and intimidation, vote buying and an unfair biased election management body” in the NEC with media controlled and used almost exclusively by the CPP.

“Otherwise, the opposition would have won,” he said. “Hun Sen has lost credibility and legitimacy, and is now a lame duck leader of the CPP and for the Cambodian nation. He has been very much humbled and cannot afford to be as arrogant as he was before.”

Many of the issues facing Hun Sen will come from within his own party. The CPP politburo has split over the Prime Minister’s handling of the election and his inability to counter the opposition’s policy agenda, which included an old age pension, pay rises for bureaucrats and a minimum wage.

The government made few, if any, policy statements during the campaign, opting instead to parade in their expensive four-wheel-drives worth US$100,000 each — most Cambodians are lucky if they make US$100 a month – across the capital in small convoys.

They stood in stark contrast to the tens of thousands of youths with painted faces and fog horns rallying in twos and threes on motorbikes across the capital.

The boisterous rallies have since fallen silent, Sam Rainsy has rejected the results and early indications are that the CPP and NEC have a case to answer in regards to election irregularities. Fears of massive protests have so far failed to materialize but speculation about demonstrations to come persist. More importantly is the silence from within the barricades where Hun Sen resides. If the prime minister has any comment to make, now would be an appropriate time.  

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.