The commune elections held on June 4 in Cambodia ended successfully. The voter turnout went beyond most analysts’ expectation, soaring up to nearly 90 percent and accounting for nearly 8 million voters. The huge turnout came with changing voting behavior, as a large proportion of voters went from supporting a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) commune chief to voting for a Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) one. The unofficial results show that the CPP, the current ruling party at the national level, won 1,163 communes while the opposition CNRP got 482 communes. Clearly, the popularity of the CPP remains strong but the popularity of the CNRP is also on the rise.
Even though the election was relatively peaceful, there were some irregularities. Koul Panha, the director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told the Phnom Penh Post, “In Loeuk Dek [in Kandal province], our 12 monitors had to abandon monitoring in two communes: Prek Tonloap and Prek Dach… If there is a serious problem in these two communes, we will request the NEC [National Election Committee] to investigate.” In addition, Transparency International Cambodia claimed that 25 percent of the polling stations had unauthorized persons present — village chiefs and police officers were sometimes illegally present in polling stations. However, the overall political situation after the election seems to remain relatively calm and peaceful.
Along with their increasing victory over a huge number of communes, the winning commune chiefs from the CNRP will need to tackle the tremendous challenges ahead of them. One of the challenges is to get rid of a self-satisfied mentality; this will only lead to self-destruction. The new chiefs need to acknowledge that one of the reasons people have shifted to vote for the CNRP is their hope to see a positive change to the current system — especially that the party would deliver better and faster public service in their region.
The elected chiefs also have to accept the reality that they will need advice and guidance from the former chief. Cambodia has been polarized into CPP supporters and CNRP fans. Approaching the former chief, even from the other party, with the absolutely sincere intention to ask for guidance and advice can build trust and is crucial for pushing rapid development to happen in each commune. This is based on the fact that the former chief had been in the position for years and known what urgent and sensitive issues need to be addressed.
Furthermore, the newly elected CNRP chiefs should assure CPP commune members that there will be no polarization against them. The participation of CPP commune members in the decision-making process is vital for the commune’s prosperity. This attitude can not only build trust but also garner popular support from CPP supporters, setting the course for long-term cooperation.
Moreover, the issue of chronic rampant corruption remains a critical challenge for the CNRP. Corruption could take many forms such as absconding with the public budget, bribery to get services done faster and protect one’s interests, and so on. In this regard, the new commune chiefs need to present themselves as a better alternative, leaders who are willing to fight against corruption. Cambodia’s public services are infamous for their lateness, and most people, especially businessmen, tend to fuel corruption in their rush to speed things up. They may try the same approach with the new chiefs — offering bribes to get a faster government response or safeguard their business interests. How the new chiefs respond to this situation will determine the public image for them and their political party in the 2018 national election.
Other issues include how getting rural people access to electricity and clean water and how the new chiefs contribute to the prevention of illegal fishing in Tonle Sap Lake and illegal logging in their communes. To tackle these issues at the local level, systematic collaboration and political will from both sides, the CPP and the CNRP, have to be at the front as they move along.
From today onward, people will keep their eyes on the new chiefs from the CNRP. As the famous political sociologist Max Weber wrote in his renowned essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” there are two kinds of politicians: those who “live for politics,” making politics their life, and those who “live off politics,” making politics their vocation. Which category the new chiefs will fall into remains to be seen.
Interestingly, before the commune elections began, most analysts saw it as a test for the long-standing Prime Minister Hun Sen. However, after the election, it has become a critical test for the CNRP’s top leaders instead. Some argue that the people’s votes in the commune elections were mostly based on the personality and qualification of the individual representative, rather than the political party itself. Regardless, if the newly elected chiefs from the CNRP are well guided and well trained and they are able to gain more support and trust from the local people through positive achievements they promise to bring about, the success of the CNRP in the 2018 national election is highly thinkable.
Then comes the question of a peaceful transition of power. It seems very unlikely that Hun Sen will step down peacefully if his party loses in the 2018 national election. The prime minister has constantly spoken about potential war, reinforced from time to time by having a military unit at his side. The deputy commander in chief, Chea Dara, claimed, “[The military will support] Hun Sen, the president of the Cambodian People’s Party, as prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia for the next electoral mandate — and forever.”
This is not to say things are hopeless. Hun Sen once used to put forward a proposal to draft a law protecting the outgoing prime minister if his party ultimately loses the election. However, this proposal has been very controversial and no consensus could be reached. Psychologically, people tend to fight against all threats until the end when their survival is threatened. The CNRP top leaders should begin their peace talks with this in mind.
Eventually, whether the hope of the Cambodian people for a better future will be fulfilled depends on how the politicians solve their cleavages. Let’s hope for the better!
Sovinda Po is a Cambodian scholar at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai.