With only two months until Cambodia’s commune election, two key questions are looming large here in Phnom Penh: Will the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) be dissolved before the election even takes place, and will the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) take a battering at the election, as some opinion polls suggest it might?
The nature of these talking points reflects one unavoidable characteristic of Cambodian politics since 2013: The contest is solely between the CPP and CNRP. Indeed, the 2013 general election was the first in which a third party failed to win any seats in the National Assembly.
The reason for this was twofold. First, the third-placed party at the 2008 general election, the Human Rights Party, merged with the second-placed party, the Sam Rainsy Party, to form the CNRP in 2012. Second, the FUNCINPEC-Norodom Ranariddh axis, dominant during previous elections, was completely exhausted by 2013. Indeed, while the CPP and FUNCINPEC were the main political parties in the 1993 and 1998 elections, by 2003 the Sam Rainsy Party had pushed FUNCINPEC to third-place, making it a spent force by 2008 and all but gone by 2013.
Since mid-2015, however, there has been a noticeable growth of a number of smaller political parties (I interviewed some of the leaders in October that year). Ten will now contest June’s commune elections: FUNCINPEC, the Khmer National United Party, the Grassroots Democracy Party, the League for Democracy Party, the Beehive Social Democracy Party, the Cambodian Youth Party, the Cambodian Indigenous Democracy Party, the Khmer Power Party, the Khmer National Party, and the Democratic Republic Party.
Some of these are purely identity-based: the youth-focused campaigning of the Cambodian Youth Party, for example, or the Cambodia Indigenous People Democracy Party’s centering on the rights of minority groups. Others are single-issue parties, and anti-Vietnamese nationalism is unsurprisingly a focus for a number of them. Many are just vehicles for popular individuals, such as Mam Somando’s Beehive Social Democracy Party.
However, most are in agreement that Cambodian politics is in need of fresh voices. The arena has been dominated by the CPP and CNRP for too long, the smaller parties contend, while power in the two parties is retained by only a few senior figures and policies decided only among the upper echelons. Indeed, it is no coincidence that many of the smaller parties were formed by disaffected members of the Sam Rainsy Party or the CNRP.
Analysts are correct that the presence of smaller political parties is to the CPP’s advantage from a strictly electoral perspective, because they would split the opposition vote (some have even suggested that more than a few of these parties were formed with exactly this purpose in mind). At the 2013 election, if the Cambodians who voted for the parties in third, fourth, and fifth place had voted instead for the CNRP, it would have won the popular vote, though probably not a majority of seats. Those who claim to promote Cambodian democracy, however, would do well to remember that democracy is not synonymous with a CNRP victory.
But the absence of a robust and vocal third party is equally detrimental for the CNRP in another fashion. In an ideal state, the main opposition party is supposed to hold the ruling party to account, while the third party is supposed to hold both to account. That competition keeps each party sharp and cautious of their own position.
This has been true in Cambodian history. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Sam Rainsy’s political party – first the Khmer Nation Party and then the Sam Rainsy Party – acted as an effective third party. It complained when FUNCINPEC grew too close to the CPP and called out FUNCINPEC for failing to push for democracy and change. Because of its effectiveness, it forced its way into the second-spot.
Today, however, there is no effective third party to pressure the CNRP to question itself. Without one eye on who is approaching from behind (or, more accurately, who is campaigning to be an alternative opposition to the CPP) the CNRP has become resolute that it is the only party capable of beating the CPP. This zeal has given the party a rather narrow sense of destiny: that its main goal is to oust the CPP, often to the detriment of its own political platform, as many pundits note. The risk, therefore, is that the CNRP coalesces around what it is against, and not what it is for. Doing so conflates the removal of the CPP from power (a monumental task) with actually bringing about genuine change in Cambodia (a far more difficult task). It can confuse the means for the ends.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar has shown where such thinking can lead. While the NLD did score a historic victory in the 2015 election, it has so far failed to impose meaningful reforms, as many analysts have noted this month, its first anniversary in power. Moreover, a number of pundits have noted a distinct lack of a third party in Myanmar politics as a contributing factor to the NLD’s poor performance. For instance, Nay Yan Oo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies described the building of a third party for the 2020 election as imperative for the country’s democratic future.
“A third party holds the promise of bringing democratic institutions to life by providing a check and balance against the NLD and the USDP. It is critical that a third party has a vision of the future based on clearly enunciated political beliefs and ideologies,” he wrote.
Without an effective third party in Cambodian politics, as of today, the CNRP has little incentive to listen to the views of others in opposition. This is a shame, since policy ideas put forward by some of the smaller parties are appealing. Take the League for Democracy Party, for example. Despite its many problems and the often CPP-appeasing comments of its leader, Khem Veasna, the party has some policy ideas that are arguably more progressive than the CNRP’s. For instance, it believes a prime minister should only serve two five-year terms in office; a prime minister should not be able to form his or her own bodyguard unit; that military and police generals should be appointed by Parliament; and that civil servants should be banned from political party affiliation.
It will be interesting to see how the smaller parties fare at June’s commune election. My guess is that the Grassroots Democracy Party will take the third spot, though it will fail to come anywhere close to the CPP or CNRP. It has campaigned heavily in rural areas since its creation in 2015 and, no doubt, will receive a spike in support for its ties to Kem Ley, the party’s late founder, and a political analyst, who was shot dead in July 2016. Kem Ley’s murder was an act that enraged many Cambodians, some of whom believe it was politically motivated.
Interesting, too, is the prospect that some smaller parties might consider building some sort of coalition. For example, in January, Nhek Bun Chhay, the leader of the Khmer National United Party, said his party had formed an agreement to work with the Cambodian National Justice Party at next year’s general election. He even speculated that discussions were in place with six other minor political parties to form a broad non-CNRP opposition coalition for next year’s general election.
Should one of the smaller parties make itself a force to contend with at June’s election – probably not so popular as to dislodge the two-party system of the CPP and CNRP, but popular enough for it to be have its voice heard – it would make for an interesting run-up to the 2018 general election.