The July 2013 election was a critical moment in Cambodia’s politics. Although driven by different motives, all political factions and the general public could finally reach a consensus: It was time to get serious about reform. With all eyes focused on what transpired in the aftermath of the deadlock and the violent protests it produced, little attention has been paid to the role that public opinion has played in shaping the country’s political landscape. Yet its significance has become more apparent in recent months.
This lack of interest in public opinion is not a huge surprise, given Cambodia’s shaky democracy. Since its independence from France in 1953, the country has been characterized by long periods of political turbulence. Cambodia’s darkest moment was the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for killing around 1.7 million people and almost destroying the country.
Throughout the 1980s, Cambodia was entangled in another protracted civil war between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the precursor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the resistance movements. The signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on October 23, 1991 brought an end to the conflict, but a cloud of uncertainty still hung over the country. Still, Cambodia was at least moving a step closer to democracy.
The most significant democratic outcome of the peace deal was probably the arranging of elections in 1993 under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which subsequently led to a rapid expansion of traditional media outlets such as radio stations, foreign language newspapers, and opposition newspapers, among others. These changes provided politicians with a means to better understand the concerns and needs of millions of Cambodians.
Although politicians were seeking to obtain as much information as possible from public opinion surveys, their main purpose was simply to refine existing policies. The general assumption in the Cambodian government is that people are not as rational as they believe they are, and so may act in a way that is not in their own best interests. Thus, it is the responsibility of leaders to make tough decisions on behalf of their supporters. This view shaped political parties’ perception towards public opinion in many important ways.
It has not, however, prevented public opinion from taking center stage in Cambodian politics. Since 1993, civil society organizations (CSOs) have proliferated, working on a wide range of issues. They are often seen as representing the voice of the poor and vulnerable and help put a spotlight on public discontent. It is not uncommon for CSOs to be engaged in fierce arguments with the government. The fact that CSOs often get financial support from Western countries makes the ruling elite all the more dubious of them.
Since the early 2000s, donors and international organizations such as the Asia Foundation and the International Republican Institute have conducted several large surveys in Cambodia. These surveys have touched on some of the most critical issues facing the country today, including corruption, the judicial system, and human rights. In response, the Hun Sen government tends to dispute the findings, and accuses the organizations of misleading the public and siding with the opposition.
Perhaps, the single most important factor that has helped turn public opinion into one of the most potent forces in Cambodia’s politics is the growing use of information technology in recent years. According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the number of mobile subscribers reached 20 million in 2013, while the number of Internet users stood at 3.8 million. Meanwhile, Social Media Plus shows that there were almost 740,000 Cambodian Facebook accounts in 2012.
With the arrival of this new medium, a new platform has emerged, where people can share information with little or no government censorship. More importantly, it directly challenges the traditional media outlets, giving voters different sources of information that they can use to form their own opinion. In addition, electronic media also allows people to mobilize support for a wide range of issues, some of which have little hope of gaining traction on traditional media outlets.
These changes cannot be reversed without potential cost. Echoing this view, politicians from both sides of the political spectrum are starting to embrace this new technology. Tellingly, social media is the backbone of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) campaign strategy. The party mostly uses this new media to promote its policies and attack the ruling elites. It has also been very effective at using it to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to protest against the government.
In contrast, only a handful of CPP leaders, mostly the younger ones, actively engage in new media, and those that do are slow and cautious in their approach. Similarly, the preferred use is to defend the party legacy and attack the opposition. Although they acknowledge the growing importance of social media, the ruling party is still skeptical to what extent this new technology can replace traditional media outlets.
However, prior to the July 2013 election, both the CPP and the CNRP did make heavy use of social media to connect with voters and give them a platform to criticize the other side. Much less interest was shown in canvassing public opinion on the issues of the day.
The shock election result may have changed this calculus. Today, driven perhaps by a fear of punishment at the polls, there are signs that politicians are paying more attention to what people have to say about the issues. This view seems to be shared at the highest levels of both parties. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook account sometime asks visitors to opine on government policy.
This is a step in the right direction. Although the ruling elites will certainly not bow to all demands, neither can they simply ignore public opinion. If they are seen as using their power for personal gain, voters will hold them accountable at the polls. Thus the shift in perception on public opinion is no coincidence.
It is also no bad thing. Some of the most critical problems facing Cambodia’s ruling elites at the moment can be traced to a lack of information. So rather than seeing the rise of public opinion as a threat, government leaders would be wise to think of it as an opportunity. It is at such critical junctures that difficult reforms can be made.
There is no turning back. The days when the government could entirely control the flow of information are long gone. Both the CPP and the CNRP must adapt to this unprecedented change if they want to remain relevant. A party that can respond to voters’ demands and concerns will receive more support. Public opinion has arrived in Cambodia’s politics, and it is a game changer.
Phoak Kung is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Mengly J. Quach University. He is also co-founder of the Cambodian Strategic Study Group and a senior research fellow at the Cambodia. He was also visiting fellow at the University of Oxford and Cornell University.