Prior to the 2013 election, Cambodia’s opposition parties were often characterized as divided, weak and poor. For the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), they were simply a subject of ridicule. In the aftermath of the CPP’s landslide victory in the 2008 election, opposition supporters had cause to wonder whether it was the beginning of the end for the opposition in Cambodia, let alone expect them to achieve a surge in popular support.
Thus, the stunning performance by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the July 28 election came as a huge shock to most people. For the first time, the opposition had emerged as a real alternative to the dominant party. After capturing 55 out of 123 seats, the CNRP insisted that in fact they had won the election given the massive irregularities that had been involved. Talks have been on and off between the CPP and the CNRP in an attempt to end the political impasse, but to date there has been no progress. Each party has blamed the other for failing to make the necessary compromise.
The opposition has demanded an independent investigation into election irregularities, while the ruling elites have insisted that the National Election Committee (NEC) is the only legitimate institution to resolve electoral disputes. With no resolution in sight, the CNRP has issued an ultimatum: reach a deal by late December, or it will hold larger and longer demonstrations nationwide until the CPP caves. The opposition has also been using mass protests as leverage to force the ruling elites to relinquish more power, although this has yet to be successful. The most pressing question for the CNRP’s leaders probably relates to the nature of their strategies to end the current deadlock and to win the next election.
After many rounds of painful talks, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) finally merged with the Human Rights Party (HRP) to establish the CNRP in July 2012. The merger excited many opposition supporters, and ended years of bickering and infighting among Cambodia’s opposition groups. Although the merger significantly boosted popular support for the opposition, it would be an overstatement to suggest that it was the only factor responsible for the CNRP’s substantial gains in the July 28 election. Over the past few years, Cambodia’s political landscape has undergone rapid transformation, and its implications are both deep and dramatic.
The opposition has benefited greatly from demographic changes. In 2012 it is estimated that around 70 per cent of Cambodians were under the age of 35. Many of these young voters didn’t just vote for the CNRP; they were also fiercely mobilizing public support for the opposition. Yet among these younger cohorts, some are hardliners who have been insisting that the opposition accept nothing less than a victory or the removal of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his close associates.
In an added complication, the CNRP depends heavily on this group to mobilize people to join their mass demonstrations nationwide. It is no coincidence that opposition leaders often consult their strongest supporters at Freedom Park before negotiating a deal to end the current political impasse, because these younger voters have been risking all to help them challenge the CPP’s domination. Further, they are very vocal about government affairs, both in public and on social media such as Facebook and YouTube. During the election campaigns, given CNRP’s severe resource constraints, many of them financially supported themselves, with little help from their leaders.
Although these hardliners play an extremely important role in the CNRP’s current election gains, opposition leaders must strike a delicate balance here. They need to know that many of their supporters are moderate or at least less extreme than their counterparts. Of course, they also want to see the CNRP being elected to power, so that some of its policies can be implemented for the benefit of Cambodia’s ordinary people, especially the poor. Yet they also want the process of change to happen without endangering peace and stability in the country and without seriously affecting everyday Cambodian life.
It is also reasonable to say that the moderate opposition supporters might tolerate the ongoing political deadlock given the difficult situations that the CNRP leaders are facing, and that it will take time before a good deal can be reached by both political parties. But the opposition leaders cannot take their supporters’ patience for granted. If the current situation drags on for too long without any solution in sight and if subsequently begins to hurt the economy, voters will blame not only the CPP but also the opposition for putting ego before the national interest. Thus, the CNRP’s leaders need to be very realistic about what they can do to end the current political impasse, rather than simply responding to the demands of the hardliners.
Another problem facing the CNRP’s leaders is whether they have the capacity and resources to lead the new government if elected. The current election gains don’t necessarily mean that voters fully trust the CNRP’s leaders to run the country. In fact, voters are right to be concerned given the opposition’s past track record. Prior to the merger, the SRP and the HRP were locked in a war of words, accusing each other of selling out to the ruling elites or having hidden agendas. They dug up any damaging stories they could find to destroy the legitimacy and credibility of their rivals.
In addition, both parties also experienced mass defections of senior party members to the CPP in the past. These defectors would then appear on television to blast their former leaders and provide their own accounts of why they had decided to leave the party that they had helped build for years. The opposition’s infighting and bickering usually featured in the headlines of major local media outlets. Worse, opposition leaders were also charged with favoritism and suppression of those who were vocal and critical of their leadership styles.
It is understandable that the CNRP’s leaders are concerned that the CPP might penetrate their party rank and file. However, restricting party members from participating in key decisions might inadvertently lead to an over-concentration of power in the hands of a few people at the top. It could also discourage highly qualified people from joining the party who might not see any potential career prospects without having to engage in protracted factional competition. Such infighting and favoritism would also severely undermine the opposition leaders’ credibility, their most important political asset.
The CNRP’s leaders could take advantage of the party youth movements to address their lack of human resources. They should also nurture their younger supporters by creating various programs that would allow them to take part in the policymaking process where appropriate. The youth will form the backbone of the CNRP’s future, and opposition leaders should think of these younger cohorts not merely as the party support base but also as the party’s next generation by giving them opportunities to learn and grow.
There is little doubt that social media has played an extremely important role in the CNRP’s stunning election gains, and has assisted them in getting their message across to millions of voters. Social media also allows the opposition to freely publish information and facts potentially damaging to the government, and seriously undermine the ruling elites’ tight grip over traditional media outlets. Recently, opposition leaders have launched online television programs, but they don’t seem to have any concrete plans about how they will use social media to challenge the ruling elites’ hegemony and maximize the public interest.
Although many of CNRP’s senior members have Facebook accounts, they only use them to make announcements about planned protests and other party activities. There are several opposition Facebook pages that have been fiercely criticizing the CPP and its leaders on a wide range of issues. They are apparently supporting the opposition, but it is not clear to what extent the CNRP might have been involved in the operation of these pages, as they often deny having any connections at all.
The opposition leaders should consider different ways of using social media to enhance the public interest, and not simply to attack their opponents. For example, they can also use social media as an input device that would allow people from any political and social background to contribute to the debate about national policies and to share their aspirations for the advancement of democracy in the Kingdom. They should also turn social media into a news center, allowing people from across the country to report stories and voice their discontent. When people are well informed, they can make the government accountable and responsive, while giving the opposition a greater chance to gain more support.
Another shortcoming is that the opposition doesn’t seem to have an effective mechanism to help any supporters who might run afoul of the law as a result of protests. In many cases, these supports must seek legal aid from non-governmental organizations or from the international community. Only when their cases catch the national attention do prominent members of the opposition step in to help. The opposition should put in place a properly functioning mechanism to assist its supporters in a proactive manner, not just for publicity purposes. They should also work closely with other relevant organizations to offer the accused and their family all necessary support.
It is now time for opposition leaders to get their act together and demonstrate strong leadership. They still have much to do to demonstrate to other voters that they have the qualifications to lead Cambodia to peace and prosperity. Cambodia and its people would be best served if all political parties, both ruling and opposition, were strong and institutionalized, so that voters could have a real choice among a large pool of potential candidates.
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.