The Political Race in Cambodia

The Khmer Times, 12 June 2017

The local elections on June 4 were a milestone in strengthening the democratic institutions and decentralisation in Cambodia. The elections were smoothly conducted and largely free and fair.

Twelve political parties contested 11,572 commune council seats in 1,646 communes across the country. The voter turnout was markedly higher than in previous local elections, with a rate of more than 80 percent.

There was a higher turnout of voters under the age of 45 and women accounted for 60 percent of the total voters. The commune council elections were first organised in 2002 with the aim of strengthening grassroots democracy and cementing a decentralisation policy. 

Since the first elections the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has dominated rural politics. Rural areas are the traditional political stronghold and powerbase of the long-ruling CPP. In the 2012 local elections, the CPP won more than 90 percent of commune chief seats. However, the CPP faced a serious setback in the last commune elections. 

According to the preliminary results released by the National Election Committee, the CPP only won 1,150 commune chief seats, or about 70 percent, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 480 communes, or about 30 percent.

Although the CPP retained its majority of seats, it lost 440 communes to the opposition, signifying a slight power shift in rural areas.

Using the results of the 2013 general election as a benchmark, the CPP gained about 300,000 more votes in the last local election, while the CNRP only gained about 90,000 votes. Therefore, overall the CPP gained more popular votes.

Interestingly, in Phnom Penh, the CPP gained an additional 70,000 votes compared with the votes it received in the 2013 general election.

Based on this calculation, and if such a trend continues, the CPP will win a majority of seats in the upcoming general elections.

On the other hand the CNRP, using the results of the commune elections in 2012 as a benchmark, proudly claimed a big victory by gaining more than one million more votes. In terms of the number of commune chiefs, it won 440 more.

Based on this calculation, the CNRP will win a majority at the upcoming general elections of at least 60 percent. However, it should be noted that the CNRP also predicted it would get about 60 percent in the last local election, but it failed to realise that target.

Clearly, the commune election is a barometre for the general election. However, it does not completely represent the people’s choices in the general election.

A swing in votes is possible. For instance, the result of the commune elections in 2012 did not reflect in the result of the general elections in 2013.

There are several unknown factors in the 2018 general election. First, about one million registered voters did not go to vote in the local elections. Second, some voters voted for the commune council candidates rather than for the political party these people represented.

Third, some voters will vote based on the performances of the newly elected commune chiefs.

There is no such thing as right wing versus left wing in Cambodian politics. A political swing is possible. It is historically proven.

For instance, the royalist Funcinpec party that won the 1993 election has completely lost the public’s trust. It did not receive any commune chief seats in the local elections. Most of the voters are not ideologically driven; they are pragmatic. They vote for the parties that can meet their expectations, positively affect their livelihoods and move the country forward.

Voters have become more informed and objective in their voting behaviour. They are not easily cheated or manipulated by politicians. They know what is best for them and for the country.

If the elected commune chiefs from the CNRP do not perform as well as expected, the voters may shift to vote for the CPP. The same applies to the commune chiefs from the CPP. 

The CNRP has a chance to prove that its leadership at the local level is clean and capable. To gain votes in the urban areas, the CPP needs to speed up reforms and improve governance, strengthen the justice system and rule of law and promote inclusive and sustainable development. 

The urban middle class tends to vote for the opposition to express its dissatisfaction with the government, not necessary in support of the leadership or policies of the opposition party.

Corruption, injustice, unemployment and urban governance are the main concerns of urban dwellers.

The key question that the CPP needs to address is why the urban middle class, the main beneficiaries of the existing establishment that has successfully maintained a high economic performance, is largely not supportive of the government.

For voters in rural areas, their main concerns are the price of agricultural products, the lack of rural infrastructure such as irrigation and rural roads, indebtedness, healthcare, education and public services.

The CPP will likely retain a majority of support in the rural areas if it can improve public services and continue the development of rural infrastructure. However, it largely relies on the performance of the ministry of agriculture and rural development. To secure victory in the 2018 general election, the CPP needs to get more votes in urban areas, while retaining votes in rural areas.

The CPP has much more human, capital and institutional resources than the CNRP. It just needs the political will and leadership to accelerate results-oriented reforms.

For the CNRP to win in the general elections, it must get more votes in rural areas. Due to a lack of resources, the CNRP will continue to appeal to voters by showcasing the weaknesses and shortcomings of the ruling CPP.

Being the victim of a political game also presents the CNRP with the advantage of gaining public sympathy and support.

It would be a serious mistake if both parties became complacent and overconfident. Continuing reform and improvement is the only way to win this political race.

The margin of popular votes between the two main parties is about 300,000, making the next election a volatile one. It is too early to predict who will win, pending on the performance of both parties.

Both parties need to find ways to effectively convince the swing voters, those who have not voted in the local elections, and the first-time voters next year. There will be about 300,000 first-time voters next year.

Pork-barrel politics will backfire for both parties. The elected commune chiefs need to serve the public interest without political discrimination. The performance of the commune chiefs will affect the results of next year’s election.

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