After being sworn into office last week, Hun Sen became the leader of a one-party Cambodian state for the second time in his life. The first time it happened was in 1985, when Hanoi promoted him to prime minister of what was then the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea, beginning the rule of one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. It happened again in a carefully orchestrated ceremony in Phnom Penh on September 23, presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni, the nominal head of democratic Cambodia.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Less than two months ago, the Western world was applauding Cambodia’s July 28 parliamentary elections as a turning point for democracy in the country. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won a shocking 55 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly, despite a litany of failures in the electoral process that skewed the vote heavily in favor of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
E.U. High Commissioner Katherine Ashton could hardly contain her enthusiasm in a letter to opposition leader Sam Rainsy in the days following the ballot. “The preliminary results of the parliamentary elections in Cambodia show remarkable gains by your party and I would like to congratulate you on this achievement,” she wrote.
The opposition had doubled its representation in parliament, the biggest blow to the CPP in 20 years. However, that wasn’t good enough for the CNRP or its nearly 3 million supporters. Emboldened by their success at the polls, Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, claimed that if not for manipulation of voter lists and outright electoral fraud, they would have won the election outright. Calls for an investigation into the ballot became the opposition rallying cry.
On September 15, the day before Rainsy and Sokha sat down for top-level talks with Hun Sen to breach the political impasse, the CNRP began three days of mass demonstrations in the capital. More than 20,000 people turned out each day to cheer on CNRP leaders as they took their fight to the negotiating table. Nothing came of the talks.
The CNRP was willing to accept outright control of the National Assembly in exchange for validating a CPP-led government, a condition that Hun Sen told reporters days later was unacceptable as it would have thwarted the government and made it impossible for the CPP to pass a budget without the CNRP’s approval. So the prime minister, who was defeated in 1993 elections by the royalist Funcinpec party but never ceded control of the government, pushed ahead with forming a new government without an opposition party.
With the blessing of the monarch, 68 CPP lawmakers took their oaths on September 23 and unanimously voted in Hun Sen as the head of the new government. After 20 years of democracy, and billions of dollars spent by the U.N. to get Cambodia back on its feet after more than a decade of civil war following the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has returned to being a one-party state.
In many ways, things are now back to normal. In the weeks following the election, Hun Sen was eerily silent. People were left to speculate on what was going on within his party as heavily armed troops and armored personnel carriers inexplicably rolled into Phnom Penh. The day after his new government was made official, the prime minister was acting like himself again. He delivered an epic six-hour speech that was broadcast over the radio and on nine CPP-friendly television stations. Barbed-wire barricades that had blocked many central streets in the capital, which the government said were necessary for security purposes as the new government was sworn in, were taken down. As it has for the past 15 years, the opposition party could only shout about the injustice of it all.
But Hun Sen knows this is not the old opposition. His marathon speech laid out a broad program of reforms, many of which echoed the populist campaign platform that proved so successful for the CNRP during campaign season, including higher wages across the board and more transparency and accountability in government. If Hun Sen doesn’t implement significant reforms over the next five years, he faces two options: be crushed at the polls in 2018 and give up power peacefully or call off democracy altogether and become “the next Burma,” relying on Chinese largesse as he suppresses domestic discontent.
The opposition, meanwhile, thinks it has little to gain by joining a National Assembly controlled by the CPP. It’s most hardline supporters won’t accept anything less than an overthrow of the current regime, while even the most moderate CNRP supporters can agree that giving legitimacy to Hun Sen without being guaranteed a check to his power would be a waste of the party’s newfound popularity.
After almost 20 years fighting against the CPP, Rainsy told The Diplomat that he has learned that serving as a parliamentary opposition to Hun Sen, without mechanisms in place to ensure deep reforms and a balance of power, is pointless. “If we were in a country with an actual democracy, we would consider playing the role of the opposition. But the opposition in Cambodia…is denied any right, any power, any status, so it is totally ineffective. We need other forms of engagement to have checks and balance with the ruling party to ensure change. Cambodia’s political landscape has changed and the balance of power has changed. We have to define a totally new strategy,” he said.
What exactly that strategy will be is difficult to say, even for CNRP leaders. Responding to reporters at a press conference following the CPP’s formation of its new government, Rainsy said that the CNRP would launch a worldwide campaign to make Cambodia a pariah state, and raised the idea of conducting nationwide labor strikes to cripple the economy, which is dominated by CPP officials and their friends. The opposition has also promised more mass protests in Phnom Penh and throughout the provinces. But whether or not the opposition could rally enough support to push the Hun Sen to make the sort of concessions that the CNRP are pushing for is yet to be seen.
Rainsy says the opposition is happy to wait out the CPP as it struggles to achieve legitimacy after staging what he calls a “constitutional coup.” “We have the confidence that legitimacy is on our side. Given the level of popular support that we enjoy, there is a crisis of identity in the ruling party. We are not going to give legitimacy to a party like the CPP who has suffered precisely by losing legitimacy,” he said.
The Cambodian people will ultimately judge the wisdom of the CNRP’s refusal to take their seats during this post-election dispute, but foreign donors seem willing to maintain business as usual in Cambodia, even as the CNRP says the CPP must change its ways. Without sweeping international sanctions or a popular revolt, political analysts said there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will be pressured to commit to make any immediate concessions to the CNRP that might jeopardize his grip on power in years to come.
Even if major Western donors were to cut aide, the CPP could still fall back on China, which in recent years has ramped up its cooperation with the CPP, committing to bloated investment projects and giving the government millions in no-strings-attached loans.
“Western governments would certainly prefer a negotiated deal [between the CPP and CNRP] rather than a lengthy CNRP boycott that forces them to choose whether to cut aid or not. If the CPP is seen to be negotiating in good faith and offering meaningful concessions and pledges, there is little likelihood that donors will suspend aid or cooperation,” said John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “If the situation worsens and Western donors do curtail aid, the CPP has other sources of revenue and international support to help it survive for an extended period if it is rebuffed by the West,” he wrote in an email.
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Australian Defence Forces Academy, said that by staying out of parliament altogether, the CNRP would struggle to claim credit for any reforms that are made in the next five years, adding that an extended campaign of mass demonstrations risked pushing the ruling party to use their sizeable security forces to protect its power.
“The CPP can definitely remain in power over the next five years with or without the CNRP. If the CNRP abnegates its role as an opposition party it will leave the CPP unopposed. This will be a terrible disappointment to the CNRP’s support base,” Thayer wrote in an email. “The real concern should be over whether or not an embattled CPP regime will revert to its default position of authoritarian rule. If the opposition mounts a strong challenge in terms of mass demonstrations…then Hun Sen is liable to use repressive means justified on dubious legal grounds.”
With little hope of isolating the CPP government, the CNRP can either attempt to conduct prolonged and widespread acts of civil disobedience or find a way to explain to its supporters why its formidable contingent of parliamentarians will take their seats in the National Assembly despite having won few up-front concessions from the CPP.
“I’m not sure what the CNRP’s current strategy is, but given that the world is seemingly willing to proceed as though the current unconstitutional government is actually legal, this limits their options,” said Simon Springer, a Cambodia expert and professor of geography and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “They can either hope for mass upheaval among the populace that brings the current government down, or they can try to make nice and get down to business within the National Assembly by making life difficult for CPP lawmakers. The former is a hugely risky approach, while the later requires them to swallow their pride.”
Colin Meyn is a reporter at The Cambodia Daily newspaper.