Surveys are rare in Cambodia and opinion polls indicating which way the electorate intends to vote are even rarer. That partially explains why so many other commentators failed to predict the hefty swing against Prime Minister Hun Sen at the last national poll.
However, recently released reports, one backed by the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and another two by the Asia Foundation, should help.
They offer rare insights into Cambodian life and particularly the nation’s youth and a rapidly widening generation gap.
At the Asia Foundation, a team eight people monitored Cambodia’s leading Facebook pages. It found crime, followed closely by border disputes, with traffic accidents a distant third were the most important areas of concern.
Importantly, the nature of the Asia Foundation report highlighted the thinking of Cambodia’s youth and emerging lower and middle classes. About 65 percent of the population is under 30, a telling factor at the last election in 2013 when Hun Sen was returned but with a sharply reduced majority in the National Assembly.
“It’s a representation of a richer civic discourse that’s happening in Cambodia that is often not picked up on,” Silas Everett, Asia Foundation country representative, told The Diplomat.
The Asia Foundation followed seven media groups, three government agencies, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Cambodian National People’s Party (CNRP), Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
“For politicians social media offers an opportunity to understand what people are engaging in most and this means what they’re most interested in and what they most care about,” Everett said. “Social media is becoming a platform for Cambodians to discuss critical issues that matter to them.”
In an initial monthly monitoring of relevant Facebook pages, conducted from mid-August to mid-September, VOA Khmer service was by far the most popular page with 2.2 million likes, shares and comments.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was second with 1.67 million hits followed by the newspaper Post Khmer – which has a heavy emphasis on crime reporting – with 1.45 million. A further survey conducted of those pages in October effectively confirmed the results of the first.
“The trends are consistent between the two months. But we’re just starting and it will be interesting to see how this pans out over the next 12 months,” Everett said.
Radio stations RFA Khmer and RFI Khmer followed with Hun Sen in sixth spot. However, the prime minister did hold first place for most popular posts with Sam Rainsy second, while Hun Sen’s “fan growth” was picking up at a rapid pace.
The report said Sam Rainsy had 37 percent more fans than Hun Sen but at current growth rates the prime minister could surpass the opposition leader by August 2017, just in time for the next general election scheduled for 2018.
“On governance, where it’s difficult to get information about what people think and want, now it’s immediate,” Everett added. “It’s those who are entering the lower middle-class who are more represented on social media.”
A conscious effort by Hun Sen to take advantage of social media only recently became evident when he essentially declared his Facebook page official. Since then he has been active, using Facebook to explain electricity blackouts, promote official tours, and even the odd game of soccer.
Of the political parties the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was a lowly 12th with 302,129 likes, shares and comments while the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with just 7,460 hits was a long way behind in 14th spot. Both parties were also well behind their respective leaders indicating the elections are being fought more along the personality lines of Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy as opposed to party policies.
That matters when the relationship between the two politicians is not good and has become increasingly confrontational in recent weeks after a lull in the acrimony that accompanied violent street demonstrations in the aftermath of the last poll.
This came to a head in November when Sam Rainsy again fled into exile after he was told he would be jailed for defamation if he returned to Cambodia following a political trip to Japan and South Korea.
It’s Not The Politics, It’s Crime
For ordinary Cambodians crime was the key issue, which was covered in a separate section of the Asia Foundation report dedicated to frequently posted topics.
Among those most concerned were the young who are disaffected by war, communicate with smartphones, and have increasingly sided with the opposition over the CPP, which has ruled here since the Vietnamese invaded and ousted Pol Pot from power in January 1979.
In Phnom Penh, what matters are residential complaints that a crime wave has taken hold. Bag snatching and robberies are all too common alongside far more serious offences, like land grabbing, extortion and murder.
But, as many in the capital know, the common complaint is that the government and ruling CPP are disinterested primarily because the city is a proven safe seat for the opposition CNRP.
On other fronts, Phnom Penh’s highly controversial refugee deal with Canberra, which spawned countless headlines in Australia, barely rated as an issue here. Under the deal four refugees were initially granted asylum by the Cambodian government after being denied access to Australia.
A fifth followed.
Their plight filled the 17th and last spot after more pressing matters like the Khmer Rouge tribunal, corruption, illegal logging, education, and health.
Political patronage and a culture of impunity, which has allowed this country’s well connected to prosper under a feudalistic system, have also been a major source of friction between Cambodia’s haves and have nots.
These reports highlight that distinction between a rising political class that votes and Cambodia’s traditional patronage network that has locked them out.
“Some of the limitations is that we now know that roughly 40 percent of Cambodians own a smartphone and that social political and economic preferences and expectations are shaped by income levels,” Everett said.
“Therefore those who are currently online through their mobile phones are more likely to represent those who are entering the lower to lower-middle classes.”
That thesis is reflected by growing income. According to the World Bank, Cambodia was this year expected to reach or surpass the $1,045 threshold in per capita income required to win classification as a lower-middle-income country.
“For a country that still only has 40 percent of households electrified and no direct telephone landlines this is an unprecedented leap in communications. The village walls are quickly coming down,” Everett said.
Apps, the Internet, and Catching-Up
A further survey by Reporters Without Borders and the Cambodia Center for Independent Media – based upon figures collated by the Cambodia Media & Research for Development – added some perspective.
It found nine out of 10 Khmers have never read a newspaper and that television still retained its massive influence over Cambodian life through TV stations owned and controlled by Hun Sen’s family and CPP interests.
Of Cambodians, 96 percent surveyed watched television and 39 percent have taken to the Internet primarily through apps on smartphones, which was slightly higher than the 35 percent who listened to the radio.
However, senior RSF researcher Clothilde Le Coz said the Internet was catching up fast and was expected to catch television as a chief source of information within the next six months.
“People are becoming more vocal and speaking out,” she told The Diplomat.
“The Internet is changing the way Cambodians see themselves and the world and it’s forcing those in charge to change,” she said, adding television focused more on entertainment while the Internet had become a primary source of news. “They are trying to change.”
Sam Rainsy did well at the last election largely because the CNRP was able to capitalize on the rapidly expanding youth vote with their use of social media.
However, the government, which still moves to the beat of an old Communist-made clock, is catching on and early indications are that they are also catching up.
That could upset both the opposition and Sam Rainsy, who is fond of modelling himself on Myanmar’s leader-elect Aung San Suu Kyi and throughly believes he will be the people’s choice at the next election due in early to mid 2018.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt