Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen upset his critics and opponents alike with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) expected to take line honors at last Sunday’s commune elections following a disappointing performance by the opposition.
According to preliminary results, the CPP won 51 percent of the popular vote, down from 60 percent in 2012 but well within analyst expectations. It also won control of 70 percent of 1,646 individual communes where more than 12,000 positions were contested.
The result was not good for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its leader Kem Sokha, who went into this election buoyed by an impressive showing at national elections in 2013 when the nation’s youth sided with the opposition and dented the CPP’s grip on power.
CNRP officials had expected to win 60 percent of the overall commune vote – up from 30 percent five years ago – and position themselves for their best chance of winning government at national elections due in July next year.
However, they could only muster 46 percent of the total, significantly higher than at the last poll but still in the minority. That will cause a rethink at party headquarters.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha had campaigned on a mix of local and national issues; primarily human rights and land rights. He also promised to sharply increase budgets to $500,000 a year for each commune but that fell largely on deaf ears.
One analyst, who declined to be named, said promises of cash lacked credibility because the opposition simply could not guarantee it could afford the total $823 million price tag unless it held government at the national level.
“Of course they are not in government. If Kem Sokha wins the national election and becomes prime minister, then perhaps he can make those sorts of promises but not until then,” he said.
The lead up to this poll was marred by a crackdown on dissent. Opposition supporters have been bashed, and jailed by the courts, opinion polls banned and journalists issued with guidelines on how to cover the elections. Critics have also been rattled by the killing of Kem Ley, a prominent political commentator who was gunned down in July last year.
That backdrop was underpinned by persistent warnings from Hun Sen that Cambodia risked returning to war if the CPP failed at this year’s commune election or at next year’s general election.
It was a campaign of threats aimed at younger voters who the CPP have struggled to win over.
The median age in Cambodia is 24 years, thanks to a post war baby-boom. And the youth vote is better educated and demanding high-end jobs with decent pay, a stark contrast to their parents who have traditionally voted CPP because it ended three decades of civil war in 1998.
By Monday morning threats of war had dissipated with Hun Sen describing Sunday’s vote “as a smooth and successful day” – and CPP rank and file breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, the CNRP was putting on a brave face arguing its increase in the popular vote still boded well for next year’s elections.
“We can conclude that after the 2018 election the CNRP will rule the country,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declared at a post-election press conference.
That was an ambitious statement given the results, which might also have been hurt by the resignation of former leader Sam Rainsy earlier this year following raft of criminal defamation suits brought by CPP supporters.
Opposition gains at this commune election reflected its impressive performance at the national poll back in 2013 when the government majority in the 123-seat National Assembly was reduced to 68 from 90 seats.
However, the CNRP has failed to press on from there. Unless it can do that quickly, it will struggle for an outright victory at next year’s election, ensuring another term for Hun Sen, already the region’s longest serving leader.
Luke Hunt can be followed Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt