Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Reforming the Cambodian People’s Party

The recent elections should be a wakeup call for a party that has grown complacent over the years.

By Phoak Kung for

The results of the Cambodian election of July 28 this year shocked many. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won just 68 out of 123 seats, losing 22 seats. The situation quickly became tense as hundreds of soldiers and heavily armored vehicles were deployed in the capital city following a violent clash between police and voters, in which two military police vehicles were attacked and set on fire. Several major roads and districts surrounding Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence were blocked. The nation was beset by confusion and uncertainty.

There has been no shortage of speculation, especially among opposition groups and some foreign observers, that the reign of the CPP is coming to an end, and that its days in government are numbered. That is unrealistic. The CPP is here to stay, and despite setbacks it has again won a majority and can form a new government on its own. What is clear, however, is that the CPP is facing its toughest challenge yet.

The CPP has made comebacks before. In the 1993 election arranged by the United Nations, the CPP lost to the royalist party, the National United Front for Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC). Despite the shock defeat, the CPP’s leaders were quick to adopt reforms and modernize. They gradually learned to make democracy work in their favor and splurged hundreds of millions of dollars on pet projects, including roads, schools, health centers and pagodas. Their strategies paid off, and they have won every election since 1998.

However, the rise of the CPP as the hegemonic party has also sown the seeds of its current failings. Following an overwhelming victory in the 2008 election, the party grew complacent. The CPP’s leaders did not feel the pressure to reform or modernize. They saw the party as still strong and resilient, capable of achieving further landslide victories with ease.

Even as the ruling elites relaxed, however, Cambodia’s political landscape was being transformed at unprecedented speed, reshaping the electoral landscape. The changes have helped create a level playing field, offering new openings for the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), to advance its policy agenda and undermine the CPP’s monopoly over key sectors such as traditional media outlets. Three major factors have played a role here: demography, technology and socio-economics. Their implications for Cambodian politics are deep and dramatic.

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Cambodia’s youth has emerged as its most potent political force. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Cambodians are under the age of 24, and up to 70 percent are under 35. Unlike their parents, these younger voters have no memories of the Khmer Rouge, and most have very little interest in that history. They tend to be more vocal on a wide range of issues, such as social injustice, inequality and corruption. Both the CPP and the CNRP are working tirelessly to woo this youth cohort, which has played a pivotal role in the CNRP’s success. Younger Cambodians don’t just vote for the CNRP; they often work vigorously to mobilize support.

Meanwhile, Cambodians have been adopting technology at an unprecedented rate. In 2011 the number of cell phones in use was roughly equivalent to the entire population. Further, according to social media marketing and advertising agency Social Media Plus, 2.46 million Cambodians were using the Internet in 2012, and almost one million had Facebook accounts. With just one click, information can be shared, in a way that makes it impossible for the government to censor news it doesn’t like. Not only does social media facilitate the free flow of information and facts, it also provides youth with a platform to express their views and coordinate activities, and CNRP supporters have taken advantage of this.

Finally, after a decade of impressive economic growth, it is estimated that around 20 percent of Cambodia’s population was living in urban areas in 2011, and urbanization will continue at a rate of more than 2 percent per year. Many people have enjoyed income growth, although the inequality gap is staggering. Moreover, literacy among adults aged 15 and above has improved significantly, reaching more than 70 percent of the population in 2009. This emerging middle class is better informed, and usually does not vote based on ideology, but rather on government performance.

This is a dilemma for the ruling party. As the process of economic development continues, the middle class will expand over time. The country needs educated and skilled people to grow its economy, but with greater levels of education comes demand for government accountability and transparency. Whether the CPP likes it or not, these forces are already unstoppable, in that the cost of reversing them would be catastrophic. Further, the CPP’s leadership cannot continue to stay in power simply by cracking skulls. They must play by the rules of the game they helped set over the last two decades: reasonably competitive elections, a vibrant and meaningful civil society, expanding social media, a growing middle class and a free market economy.

Although the challenges are tremendous, the CPP has avenues by which it can win back what it lost in the recent election. The good news for the party is that some of those who have switched their allegiance to the CNRP simply want to punish the CPP for its failure to deliver on its past promises. They are less interested in an actual change of government. People are outraged by the fact that many are struggling to live even at a subsistence level, while party elites enjoy glamorous lifestyles. They just don’t see the benefits of the so-called double-digit economic growth trickling down to them; what they see instead is growing inequality. Worse, the CPP seems to have lost touch on this issue: its leaders frustratingly argue that they have achieved much during their time in government, contrary to the evidence in front of many voters.

The leadership has just five years to turn things around. The party must take advantage of this critical moment to introduce rigorous reforms, both within the party and within government, especially changes that might normally be a hard sell. It is no use defending the government when the public is not listening, and justifying the unjustifiable is absurd.

Nonetheless, the CPP does have strengths, as a mature and highly institutionalized party with more than three decades of governing experience through turbulent times, and a large pool of human and capital resources. It should call on these strengths to overhaul the party.

After the electoral defeat of 1993, the CPP’s leaders moved swiftly to reform and modernize. They rebuilt a massive grass-roots structure of party activists. The key responsibility of the activists is to explain party policy, monitor voter behavior, mobilize turnout and toe the party line. The CPP’s leaders rely heavily on them to collect information from every constituency, so that they can keep track of popular support and tailor policies accordingly. So what went wrong this year?

The main culprits are corruption and nepotism, which have demoralized activists at village and district levels. Since the decision to appoint party members to government posts takes into account their involvement in strengthening the constituencies assigned to them by the party leadership, many senior party members rush to put family and friends on the list of party activists. These lucky people then make brief appearances in their constituencies, but leave the hard work to local activists, whose discontent grows by the day.

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The CPP’s leaders must fix this problem now. They cannot allow senior party members to recklessly pursue personal gain at the expense of the party. More importantly, the CPP should provide adequate incentive for hardworking party activists. Moreover, it must urgently address the problem of nepotism, which has destroyed the party’s moral foundation. The CPP should also embrace new methods that might enhance the capacity of its members, such as improving their communication skills, keeping them informed about current events, and embracing new technologies. Finally, the CPP’s leaders must communicate directly with the party’s grass roots, rather than relying on reports from immediate subordinates who might have their own agendas.

Despite the reshuffling of the new cabinet, the changes don’t go far enough to reinvigorate the party. As Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng argues, changes must go beyond new names. The problem with the CPP is that it does not go outside its inner circle to fill leadership positions, to the detriment of reform. The CPP would do well to learn from the People’s Action Party of Singapore or the United Malays National Organisation of Malaysia. One of the greatest strengths of these organizations is that they boast a large number of competent senior officials, because they recruit the best people wherever they find them. By breaking its outdated tradition, the CPP can recruit candidates who will bring with them fresh ideas.

Restoring trust is probably the most challenging task for Cambodia’s ruling elites. After many years in power, the CPP has not delivered on its promises. The country’s leaders may believe they have been doing what they can to bring peace and prosperity, and clearly Cambodia has made strides. But what the CPP fails to grasp is that the economy is undergoing a major transformation, a process that is leaving many of its poorer people struggling. Inequality is skyrocketing, traditional businesses are making way for large corporations, and many rural people – especially the young – are migrating to the city or even abroad where they are forced to take low-paying jobs.

The CPP might tell people that they will be better off in the long term, but many people cannot wait. Acknowledging the problem, Sar Kheng created a charitable foundation to help the poor, but this was too little, too late. Voters want something more substantial. The government has a wide range of policies it could adopt to lessen the pain, such as an affordable safety net, vocational training, microfinance, social insurance, new technologies, or improving agricultural productivity.

A few months prior to the election, the CPP circulated an internal memo advising its members to deal with corruption and incompetence at the local government level. The CPP’s leaders clearly realize that a growing number of people are unhappy with local officialdom. Hun Sen once asked people not to vote against him just because they didn’t like the party bureaucrats, since he had nothing to do with those problems. But voters are no longer buying that argument. Most CNRP supporters hold the prime minister accountable. The only way to restore public trust is to introduce painful reforms to local government. Although there will be resistance from local party members, for the sake of the party’s future, the ruling elites need to be tough and decisive. Reform should begin by legalizing some informal payments for the provision of basic goods and services, cutting back on red tape, simplifying or removing unnecessary regulations, and appointing more competent people to the local councils.

In his marathon address on September 16 during the new cabinet meeting, Hun Sen outlined the reforms that his government would introduce in the fifth mandate. Steps will apparently be taken to address corruption and nepotism, judicial independence, the rule of law, accountability and other issues. This is surely a positive sign, but voters are becoming very wary of such grand talk, having heard the promises before. This time, voters will need real progress. In addition, reforms of the type the prime minister described typically take a long time to produce meaningful results, and the CPP cannot afford to wait. It needs to deliver change to voters soon, well before the 2018 elections.

For that reason, the party should also undertake more immediate reforms, to build confidence and trust. There is much low-hanging fruit to choose from, such as reducing exam corruption, swiftly punishing party members involved in mismanagement or criminal activities, and becoming more responsive to public complaints.

However, the CPP’s leaders should not lose sight of the need for broader and deeper reforms if they want to continue to stay in power and remain relevant to the majority of Cambodian people. Reform will also have the added benefit of underpinning economic growth and good governance. Although it will be difficult, reform can be achieved if the CPP commits to a prosperous and democratic Cambodia. The time to act is now.

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.