Cambodia’s Opposition: Brinksmanship or the Long Game?

By Carl Thayer

Cambodian national election ballot. Official results for the 2013 election were announced August 12, 2013. Source: Daniel Littlewood's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Cambodian national election ballot. Official results for the 2013 election were announced August 12, 2013 and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party gained seats in the National Assembly. Source: Daniel Littlewood’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

On July 28, Cambodia held its fifth national election since UN-supervised elections in 1993. On August 12, the National Election Committee issued the first official results. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) received 3,235,969 votes while the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) received 2,946,176 votes. These results represent a huge gain for the opposition which will hold 55 seats up from 29 in the last election. The ruling CPP will still retain power holding 68 seats in the 123 seat National Assembly. The CPP, however, has lost its two-thirds majority and the ability to amend the Constitution. The official allocation of seats in the National Assembly will be made once complaints are dealt with.

The 2013 Cambodian election result is significant for two reasons. It reverses an electoral trend underway over the last four national elections in which the ruling CPP has achieved an ever greater percentage of the votes cast and seats in the National Assembly. It also signals the emergence of a unified, formidable opposition.

The opposition CNRP now faces a crossroads. In the midst of claims of unprecedented electoral abuse, does it boycott the National Assembly or assume the role of a “loyal opposition” willing to play the parliamentary game patiently?

The way forward for the CNRP is to adjust to the fact that it did extremely well but not well enough to secure a majority of the seats. Party members should take their seats in the National Assembly. At the same time the CNRP should press for an investigation into electoral irregularities. Mass demonstrations could be focused on redress of specific electoral abuses but they must be kept non-violent. However, if the CNRP launches repeated mass demonstrations to force the CPP out of office it is courting disaster. Judging by past events, Prime Minister Hun Sen will continue to govern without the opposition.

The CNRP would be making a strategic mistake to claim that they really won the election and therefore refuse to take part in the National Assembly. The CPP’s default position is one that stresses shutting the opposition down rather than dealing with it as a legitimate player. The CPP will hope to provoke the opposition into some rash action, like walking out or boycotting proceedings, in order to lock them out of the National Assembly. If CNRP deputies resort to brinkmanship in challenging the CPP they risk provoking a prolonged political crisis if not outright repression.

In the National Assembly the CNRP will not hold real power. It will be frustrated by the CPP’s repeated use of its majority on procedural matters. But it can set the precedent of acting like the alternate government. Neither the CPP nor the CNRP has any real experience in a National Assembly composed of two parties. The CPP will have to adjust to a new and uncomfortable position in facing a unified democratically elected opposition. The CNRP will have to begin to act as a real opposition. It must query and criticize government policies, while offering viable alternative policies at the same time. It should avoid provocations that incite the government to use heavy handed tactics. The CNRP will have to remain disciplined, united and focused on a long-term strategy to take over government.

The CNRP will also have to think and act strategically, capitalizing on its current popularity. It must focus on the next commune and provincial elections as part of a five-year strategic plan to gain office at the next national elections.

Cambodia is set to enter a new era over the next half decade. If the CNRP takes its place in the National Assembly it could lay the foundations for a two party democracy at the national level. Under proper leadership, it could position itself to take over government in next national elections scheduled for 2018.

Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. Read more by Professor Thayer here.