May 20 marked the beginning of a race toward the commune elections in Cambodia, to be held on June 4. But this race will not end the day that citizens cast their ballots; this is a protracted race that will end in July 2018, when the general elections will take place.
Within roughly 12 months, Cambodian citizens will be called to vote on two occasions. Local leaders will be elected in the commune elections, while the next prime minister will be chosen in the highly anticipated general elections, which will either extend the 32-year mandate of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or give way to a new era of leadership by the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). With the imminent commune elections, Cambodian citizens have in their hands a valuable opportunity to evaluate the performance of the two parties with a real chance to lead the country for another five years. In other words, besides the importance of the results themselves, the commune elections will be a clear indicator of what the nation could see in the general elections in 2018.
Four years ago, the unexpected outcomes of the general elections — which left the CPP with a narrow margin of 13 seats ahead of CNRP, an unprecedented result since Hun Sen has been in power — shook up the domestic political scenario. Political predictability could no longer be assumed. The results strengthened those advocating for a power shift, as many started perceiving it as a real option, but it also raised the alarm within the CPP, which saw its leadership threatened for the first time ever. The momentum of the CNRP caught the CPP by surprise and political crisis followed when the opposition lawmakers boycotted the National Assembly — the CNRP strongly refused to accept the results due to accusations of ballot rigging. The crisis was sealed as soon as King Norodom Sihamoni approved the electoral results.
The Commune Elections as Indicator
Under the current system of administrative divisions there are 1,646 communes, or clusters of villages, which are part of the districts that form Cambodia’s 24 provinces. According to the figures published by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), the CPP currently controls 62 percent of the communes. It is worth noting that at the time of the last commune elections in 2012, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party had not yet merged to form the current CNRP.
The fact that commune elections will be held just one year ahead of the general commissions makes them the perfect barometer of a potential shake up in the future general elections, considering that the government does not carry out official surveys on voting intentions or the profile of the electorate. Therefore, with the commune elections being a fairly reliable political prediction tool, the results raise several points of interest.
Can the CNRP Score a Repeat Performance?
First, will the CNRP be able to maintain the trend witnessed in the 2013 elections and reduce the ruling party’s margin of victory in the communes, if not surpass the CPP altogether? In its short life since it was founded in 2012, the party has gone through remarkable internal reforms starting in the aftermath of the 2013 general election. To begin with, the two top leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, have been facing numerous defamation suits. Sam Rainsy, who has spent the past few years in self-imposed exile, resigned from the leadership of the party in February after the government hinted it would change the laws governing political parties, and assume the right to dissolve parties whose leaders have committed criminal offenses. Kem Sokha, the new opposition leader, is a well-known figure in Cambodian politics, but not as popular as Sam Rainsy. The ruling party learned this by experience — and its own mistake when Hun Sen himself wrote to the King asking for a pardon of Sam Rainsy — four years ago, when they did not expect that the CNRP leader would bring a landslide of votes with him upon his return from exile. Given the current situation, even with regular appearances by Sam Rainsy in the media, the CNRP will need to do its best to avoid the disenchantment of some of its voters.
Kem Sokha’s mild manners and focus on the rural areas might be a determinant factor due to the imbalance between urban and rural areas under the current seat allocation process. On February, Voice of America published the reflections of analyst Ou Virak on this issue. Phnom Penh has seen massive influx of people from the countryside, but still has a similar number of seats compared to provinces with lower populations. “This means that each vote cast in the Phnom Penh capital is half the value of a vote cast by their fellow voters in Prey Veng province,” Ou Virak explained. “Therefore, voters in Prey Veng have more weight in parliament than those in Phnom Penh. This is an imbalance and injustice for the Phnom Penh dwellers.” According to the policy think tank Future Forum, Phnom Penh should get 15 seats, and Prey Veng only eight.
Under the current representation rate, though, both the CPP and the CNRP are aware of the importance of rural votes. Traditionally, the CPP devotes major efforts to promoting and enhancing its image among non-urban areas to attract votes, a practice that has been highly effective up until now. The results map of the last general elections clearly show how the CNRP won in Phnom Penh and surrounding provinces, while CPP votes came from all the other provinces. Approximately 80 percent of the Khmer population is rural, and such areas are the most vulnerable, with 20 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line or being at high risk of falling into the poverty trap.
New Voter Demographics
The second factor worth watching in the commune elections is the profile of the electorate. The need for reforms to tackle electoral imbalance reflects a social reality and transformation. Understanding how demography changed between 2013 and 2017 (and 2018) complements the overall social analysis. The Cambodian population is mostly young or very young: 31 percent is just 14 or younger, and the median age is 24. Such facts were well noted in the 2013 elections, as 36 percent of the voters were 30 years old or younger, and 1.5 million were first-time voters. Along with the outcomes, the behavior of the youth will be another focus of interest, which could give clear hints of their degree of political engagement and capacity to defy the status quo.
Naturally, this sector of the population presents unique characteristics. One remarkable trait that all parties must reckon with is that the youth tend to be more informed, and they have more awareness of the highly sensitive issues the country is facing, such as corruption scandals, land grabbing, deforestation, social injustice, and the polarization of society between “haves” and “have-nots.” In this sense, Cambodia’s young people bring maturity to the system, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will overcome their fears and make their voices loud enough to be heard.
All political parties, no matter what color they represent, need to consider and understand the dynamism of the demography, but it would be a mistake to assume that the population’s low median age alone will lead to a change. Even with the undeniable fact that the 2013 elections saw the youth voting en masse, there is the need for a combination of sociopolitical attitudes and opportunities to bring about political change. On one hand, the engagement of ]youth in politics still remains low; this may be due to negative perceptions, lack of political education, and inequality among citizens. It is undeniable that education and economics have advanced, but Cambodian society remains highly polarized between the rich and the poor, with fewer opportunities to get involved in politics for the latter. On the other hand, the youth must be provided with more information in a non-biased manner in order to promote understanding of the domestic political scenario, as well as making the system more inclusive among all sectors. One of the few ways to make this happen is through education, focusing on critical thinking and creating awareness among all of any potential options for the future of the country, including the risks derived from a U-turn in leadership.
The Social Media Boom
Third, and related to demographics, is the role of social media in Cambodian politics. This relatively new tool is available to all political parties and nearly all citizens, regardless of social class and social background. Facebook in particular is not only an entertainment tool; it has become the second most used channel to receive information. Therefore, political parties must become social media gurus if they want to gain votes, especially from the youth.
So far, both the CPP and the CNRP are heavy users of Facebook. Sam Rainsy, exiled while facing criminal charges for defamation, mostly uses social media as a tool to communicate to the masses in Cambodia from abroad. Hun Sen and the CPP seemed more reluctant to use social media at first, but given its effectiveness in reaching voters, the prime minister rapidly updated himself, feeding his Facebook wall regularly with posts about his political duties and offering live broadcasting of his public events. He soon surpassed Sam Rainsy in number of like — despite the controversy whether or not his likes were bought from abroad.
With Facebook as a form of e-democracy, new structures of interaction between the government and the electorate are created, giving political parties the opportunity to reach a much higher number of potential voters and spread their discourses. If compared to traditional mass media, social media is a two-way communication tool, and this empowers civil society by creating a new interactive streamline of information. It must be noted that even with the massive use of social media, it remains as a mere tool that, alone, does not change governments.
The majority of the population is waiting for the commune elections. Looking beyond the outcomes, Cambodia has an opportunity to show its commitment to democratization. Many see in the country an untapped pool for political change, while others remark upon Cambodia’s authoritarian manners and move toward a one-party (and even a one-man) system, which often tries to silence its critics. The forthcoming elections are the perfect scenario to see how a rapidly changing society views its leaders and gets involved into the political sphere. On their part, political parties must give credibility to the Cambodian political system by ensuring free and fair elections and a campaign free of threats that does not spread a false sense of fear of change. All political parties should clearly show their road map with a clear focus on the needs of the people, and avoid embracing the sole purpose of defeating their political counterparts.
Marc Pinol is a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and lecturer of global affairs and political science.