Khmer Times, 17 January 2015
Cambodia is entering a new phase of political uncertainty after the eruption of political tension between the two main political parties – the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) late last year.
As local and national elections are approaching, competition for power between the CPP and CNRP is intensifying. The 2018 election will be the most competitive race between the two political forces to date. It is still too early to predict who will win, as the election results will be very much defined by the votes cast by young voters. In 2014, 30 percent of the population was aged between 15 and 29 years old and this will increase to 40 percent in 2020.
The party likely to win the next election needs to have a convincing and realistic strategy to win the heart of young voters. Political leaders must change their behavior and approach to youths.
Cambodian politics is also very much shaped by historical memories, cultural values, economic conditions, social transformations, external factors and foreign intervention.
After the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the early 14th century, when the Khmer King abandoned Angkor and moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia experienced more than five centuries of foreign intervention, colonialism and occupation. The lack of national unity was the root cause of national weaknesses and humiliation.
In more recent times, Cambodia went through three decades of civil war, lasting from early 1970s to late 1990s. Only after 1998, was Cambodia able to unite the whole country under one legitimate government after the remaining Khmer Rouge forces were completely disintegrated and reintegrated into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
However, the power struggle and competition between different political parties and factions remains acute. Due to lack of trust and weak institutions, Cambodia’s political culture is prone to conflict and instability. Zero sum games and the survival of the fittest characterize how the parties behave.
It was expected that political reconciliation under the “culture of dialogue” between the CPP and CNRP would transform their power struggle from a negative-sum game into a positive-sum game in which all political parties could co-exist and benefit.
Yet the political detente was unfortunately short-lived due to the lack of substance and working mechanisms to sustain and nurture political trust. Mutual personal attacks and deep distrust between the leaders of the two parties were the main factor derailing the dialogue.
To revive and sustain political dialogue and trust building, both parties need to focus on institutional reforms, nation building and democratic consolidation. Such process of political trust building is the foundation of long-term peace and stability in the country. The two main political parties need to take leadership roles and be role models for other smaller political parties.
Some of the issues and challenges faced are political polarization and the widening gap between state and society. The speed of social change far surpasses state reforms. Political leaders need to adjust their way of thinking, behavior, and approach so that they can meet the aspirations and needs of young people.
The state should largely perceive civil society as a mirror rather than as smoke. Civil society plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, monitoring public policy, keeping political leaders and public authorities in check and providing social services. State-society interactions are crucial in democratic consolidation.
Garnering political support for the upcoming commune election in 2017 and national election in 2018 is the main focus of political parties. The key issues are poverty, corruption, social injustice, land disputes, economic inequality, depletion of natural resources (particularly deforestation) and territorial sovereignty.
So far, the ruling CPP has not effectively implemented the reform agenda as set out in its national development strategy. Corruption and social injustices remain serious. Public dissatisfaction is on the rise, particularly with regard to weak public institutions. The poor are starting to ask more questions about the “unjustifiable wealth” of some rich politicians and government officials.
It is a massive challenge for the ruling party to speed up reforms and deliver concrete results for the upcoming elections. The symptoms of bad governance are clear. Now, leaders need to decide whether to undergo simple treatment or surgery.
As society is changing so rapidly, adaptive, service-oriented and transformative political leadership is required. Political leaders need to understand both existing and emerging social problems and needs, develop the necessary mechanisms and mobilize energy and resources to solve them.