Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia: Breaking The Deadlock

A little compromise on both sides could break the impasse and benefit everyone, including voters.

By Phoak Kung for

The July election was a historic moment in Cambodian politics. For the first time since the 1993 election arranged by the United Nations, the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), looks vulnerable. But what is even more astonishing is that voters are not afraid to express their political beliefs and to criticize political parties in public. The sheer number of people who turned up in support of their preferred candidates was also unprecedented, and clearly shows the extent to which democratic values have taken root in the Kingdom.

Despite grabbing 55 out of 123 seats, the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), vehemently rejects the election results, unless its charge of widespread irregularities are properly addressed by an independent investigating body. But the CPP has flatly ruled out that option, arguing that the National Election Committee (NEC) is the only legitimate institution to resolve any electoral disputes.

Talks have been on and off between the CPP and the CNRP, but thus far there’s been no progress. According to the CPP’s source, the CNRP wants the post of National Assembly president as a condition of the deal, but the CPP’s leaders are only willing to offer the post of the vice president and four chairmanships of the parliamentary commissions. At the same time, both parties have issued multiple threats against each other. The CNRP vows that it will hold mass protests nationwide, while the CPP warns of possible violent clashes and legal consequences.

Without a deal in sight, the CPP asked King Sihamoni to convene the first parliamentary meeting on September 23, which the opposition boycotted. In response, Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s president, rolled up his sleeves and visited Western capitals to urge their leaders not to recognize the CPP-led government and to cut off all foreign aid to the country. He left his deputy, Kem Sokha, to rally support for mass demonstrations across the country. However, Rainsy’s foreign trips might not provide much leverage, given that both the U.S. and the European Union have maintained very diplomatic tones since the July 28 election.

There’s no easy answer to the current political stalemate. The CPP cannot afford to give more than what it has already offered the CNRP. As Prime Minister Hun Sen clearly says, giving the position of the National Assembly president to the CNRP would only lead to dysfunctional government, and the CPP doesn’t want its fifth mandate to be preoccupied with one deadlock after another. Further, the CPP also needs to make enough positions available to its senior officials in the National Assembly, especially at a time when factional rivalries could bring the party to the brink of complete disarray.

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Another concern is that a very generous deal could be seen as a victory for the opposition and, more importantly, could imply that the ruling elites have something to hide in terms of election irregularities. The CPP wants people to see its concession as an act of reconciliation for the sake of the country, not as a sign of weakness. The CPP is also very cautious about the prospect that its opponents might become a potential threat to its survival in the future if given too much power in the decision-making process in parliament.

The CNRP is also under tremendous pressure not to make a quick deal. The downfall of the royalist party, the National United Front for Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCIPEC), is a constant reminder to opposition leaders that they cannot recklessly rush a deal. They are also concerned that if the CPP reneges on its promises, there’s almost nothing they can do to hold the ruling elites accountable. The implications of a failed deal could potentially be damaging to the CNRP, and many voters won’t be willing to listen to the opposition complaints again, as they’ve had enough of the FUNCINPEC party since the 1993 election.

In addition, the CNRP’s top brass hope to build on their current gains to challenge the CPP in the 2018 election. Thus, they will relentlessly fight for a deal that would provide enough posts for their senior officials and give them the authority to shape and influence the policy agenda in the National Assembly. Another factor is that they have a lot to explain to their supporters, especially the hardliners, in terms of why such a deal would make the party and the people better off. If they don’t do it properly, they might be accused of selling out to the CPP, and that’s precisely what the CNRP has been trying to avoid. Complicating the negotiations further, the CPP and the CNRP have a long and antagonistic history. Each side is always ready to destroy the other, given the opportunity. Political parties in Cambodia are suffering from a severe deficit of trust.

Despite all the constraints, the CPP and the CNRP clearly understand the consequences of the no-deal situation. The CPP cannot rule the country alone without risking its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Taking away the CNRP’s parliamentary seats would only be met with a political storm at home and diplomatic headaches with Western countries. The use of armed forces to quell protesters is extremely dangerous, and it could plunge the country into chaos. Worse still, if the crackdown results in mass casualties, and the government loses its legitimacy and credibility with the people, a breakdown in the party rank and file could be imminent.

It would be surprising if Sam Rainsy and his party members really believed that they could use mass demonstrations to force the CPP to relinquish power. Popular pressure won’t be enough to divide the ruling elites, because they deeply understand that disunity is political suicide. Therefore, if they find themselves with their backs against the wall, they will sink and swim with the regime. The consequences could be catastrophic. It is possible that the CNRP’s leaders could use the threat of mass demonstrations as leverage in negotiating a deal with the CPP, but they cannot change the election outcome. More importantly, if the deadlock drags on for too long, and it hurts the economy, people will surely blame both parties for their inability to end the political impasse.

An attitude of “my way or the highway” is impossible in Cambodian politics. Both parties need to take steps to reconcile their differences and compromise. Moreover, they need to tone down their rhetoric. The CPP’s threat to leak information about its talks with the CNRP is counterproductive, and it doesn’t serve any purpose that could benefit the ruling elites. Moreover, the CPP’s top brass must refrain from attacking the opposition in public, for that would only sour the already strained relationship and hinder the possibility of reaching a deal.

On the other hand, the CNRP’s leaders shouldn’t pledge to their supporters that they won’t make a deal with the CPP, for they might just find themselves in a crisis of credibility if they end up doing otherwise. Although they might wish to use such rhetoric to assure their supporters that they will be tough on their demands for a thorough investigation of election irregularities by an independent body before considering other options to end the deadlock, making such a pledge is unnecessary and dangerous, especially when they have not even been asked to do so.

To kick-start negotiations again, the CPP and the CNRP need to move away from their no-deal position. The CNRP might have to back down on its demand for the post of National Assembly president, and accept in principle the positions offered by the CPP. And the ruling party needs to consider addressing the problems of election irregularities in a way that would be acceptable to voters. More importantly, a concession will allow opposition leaders to make a case to their supporters that since the truth will finally come to light, they can now return to the negotiating table. But the purpose of the investigation should be about fact-finding, which can be used to reform the election process, not to change the results.

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Both parties should begin negotiations by finding their common ground. Tellingly, there is a wide range of policy issues on which both parties can work together. In his marathon address on  September 25, Hun Sen outlined several key reforms that his government would introduce in the fifth mandate, most notably corruption, judicial independence and the rule of law. These are the kinds of reform that Sam Rainsy has been advocating for years. Now both parties can sit down and work out how the opposition can play a role in helping to implement these reforms.

An agreement will be a very important step for the CPP and the CNRP to tackle other, much tougher issues such as reforming the NEC and the Constitutional Council, election laws, the internal rules and regulations of parliament and the traditional media outlets. There are also signs that the CPP might commit to deeper and broader reforms in the fifth mandate, as Cheam Yeap, senior CPP lawmaker, has hinted that the reforms, whether to the NEC or electoral laws, will start when the CNRP’s members agree to take up their parliamentary posts. It is legitimate for the CNRP’s leaders to voice their concerns over the authenticity of the promises given the past record of the CPP, but outright refusing the offer would be a missed opportunity. They should instead work with the CPP and other relevant stakeholders on the mechanisms that would allow these reforms to proceed.

There is reason to hope that the CNRP will have more power to call in members of government, and to question them on a wide range of policy issues. However, opposition members can’t effectively perform their roles without knowledge and information about government affairs. Thus, the CNRP needs to propose to establish a research unit within parliament to assist it in collecting data and analyzing government policies. The CNRP’s members can hold the ruling elites more accountable only when they are well informed. Moreover, this research unit can also help the CNRP’s leaders develop more comprehensive policies to address the problems facing voters and to offer alternative solutions.

The CNRP should also take this opportunity to address the inherent problem of the opposition, namely the lack of authority and resources to implement the policies that it promised to voters during the election campaign. The CNRP’s leaders might need to consider attaching some of their popular policies to the deal, for example, a salary increase for public servants, benefits for the elderly and more social programs. They should consult the CPP on how these policies can be carried out in a fiscally sustainable manner. It would be electoral suicide for the CPP to completely reject policies that benefit millions of voters, especially the poor. And if the CPP agrees, opposition leaders can still take the credit. However, the ruling elites are not necessarily worse off: if they are able to deliver positive results, they can also enjoy more public support. All sides will benefit, including the voters.

The ruling elites and the opposition leaders should make the negotiation process transparent and accountable. Since the 1993 election, all political deadlocks were concluded with a deal between the winning parties, the CPP and the FUNCINPEC, but the talks usually took place behind closed doors, and the public was usually kept out of the process. Only when the CPP didn’t fully comply with its promises did the FUNCINPEC come out and in desperation explain to voters that it had been treated unfairly.

Thus, the CNRP’s leaders should demand that some parts of the deal be disclosed to the public. First, they can avoid accusations of having a hidden agenda with the CPP. Second, they can hold the ruling elites more accountable, because voters will also know what’s inside the deal. Disclosure isn’t a bad thing for the CPP either. When the FUNCINPEC accused it of not faithfully honoring the power-sharing deal, the ruling elites took pains to explain to voters that they had fulfilled all their promises. But they struggled to convince, for most people knew nothing about the deal. More importantly, those in power can also use their policy pledges in the deal to increase public awareness of their commitment to reforming government and improving the plight of the poor, and that voters can judge them based on real achievements.

Although the deal is not what some opposition supporters are hoping for, Sam Rainsy and his senior officials might have reckoned that it is the second-best option. At least the deal is able to achieve three important objectives for the opposition: leveling the playing field, delivering certain promises to voters and strengthening the party for the next election. However, the CNRP shouldn’t assume that its supporters will eventually understand its decision to cut a deal with the CPP. It needs to engage its supporters, leading them step by step to the conclusion of the deal, so that they can feel that they are also part of the decision-making process.

For the CPP, the deal might also disappoint some party members, especially those who could subsequently lose their jobs. However, the ruling elites cannot end this game of brinkmanship without making some concessions to the opposition. Despite their strengths, they will try to end the current political stalemate through dialogue, and if possible, avoid using violent measures to crack down on protestors. What’s happening in other parts of the world has clearly shown that the presence of the armed forces in the streets doesn’t scare people, but may instead make them more determined to sacrifice everything for their causes. Even if the ruling elites do manage to cling to power, that would be at the cost of inflicting substantial damage to the country, and surely that’s not what they want to see either.

Phoak Kung is a Harvard-Yenching Doctoral Scholar and a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. He was Visiting Researcher at the University of Oxford and Cornell University. His writing appears in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies publication.