After a hiatus of three months and with the election finally over, and the results now officially confirmed, here is my commentary.
Against all my predictions, I really hadn’t believed it, Sam Rainsy was allowed back into the country to participate in the election campaign, although not as a candidate. I had thought the people had practically forgotten about him. Boy, was I proven wrong. Thousands of people lined the road when he arrived. Wherever he traveled during the campaign he drew good-sized crowds and obviously energized especially the young people. I have no idea whether Kem Sokha would have been able to accomplish the same results.
The election proved to be another eye-opener; this time not only for me but most certainly for the old CPP party stalwarts and not the least Mr. Hun Sen himself. Who would have thought that the new party (with its somewhat ridiculous name in my view) would garner so many seats.
They claim they even won the election. According to news accounts they have not yet shown any comprehensive evidence of that besides some forms that did not show matching numbers. They claimed interference from election officials and poor management of the polling stations. I am sure this is all true. Reading all these accounts I tend to believe that they indeed either came very close or even won this election. Their calls for an independent panel to investigate all these irregularities remained unheeded, as was to be expected. The outright refusal and the cursory review of the CNRP complaints by the National Election Committee speak volumes for themselves. It did not come as a surprise that the Constitutional Council confirmed the Election Committee’s results. So the result of 68 to 55 will stand. The final official announcement is on Sunday, September 08, 2013.
Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha threatened to hold mass demonstrations. Most likely, they thought this would force the ruling party’s hand. I wonder whether or not they had the Middle Eastern and North African countries in mind. We know that all the regime changes there did not end well. I also don’t think that Cambodia can be compared with Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt; the culture, history, and mentalities are too different. The government obviously wasn’t sure about that as they prepared to counter any threat to what they called ‘stability’, meaning their rule, by moving police from the provinces to the capital.
Finally, Sam Rainsy caved in fearing that the government would indeed crush any unlawful demonstration – one has to bear in mind that normally demonstrations of only up to 200 people are allowed at a special site, Freedom Park – he declared it a ‘prayer meeting’. Violence can erupt easily as examples in other countries have shown. In this case, it could be sparked by both sides. There were skirmishes before between supporters of both parties.
Long story short, we now know that the mass demonstration (which should at least number 100,000 if it is to be called mass demonstration) never materialized – the 'prayer' event went without any incident; both the demonstrators and the police remained calm. The police stayed unobtrusively in the background.
It is noteworthy, however, that this demonstration drew only about the same number of people – estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 – as the one on Aug. 06. Expats who were there estimated the crowd at about 10,000. The park was only half full. The conclusion one observer drew was that it probably is always the same people who attend and that the party does not have that mass appeal for demonstrations as it believes it has. From what I hear from Cambodians, they have no taste for any confrontation with government forces. The majority of Cambodians fear that any further confrontations could turn in a civil war. Since Sam Rainsy announced those mass demonstrations many a shopkeeper kept his store closed - a sure sign of the prevailing uncertainty in the country.
Although Kem Sokha threatened with more demonstrations that wouldn’t be so peaceful as in the past, the more likely outcome is that there will somehow be an arrangement between the two parties. Some even talk about a possible cabinet post for Sam Rainsy. Clearly, Hun Sen must be chastened by the result. His hold on power is not as firm any more. Of course, he has the military and the power structure on his side. But he can’t risk alienating the masses – the masses being the young people who constitute the majority in this country. The older this young generation becomes and the longer they see the flagrant disregard of their interests and the unfairness in their lives, the more critical and restive they will become. Hun Sen will have to make some drastic changes in his approach to the people’s welfare – token measures such as the land titling program won’t suffice any more.
One thing is clear, though. A change in government at this point would have been catastrophic. The current rather solid power structure cannot be changed overnight. Most of the upper echelons have vested interests in practically all sectors in Cambodia. How would Sam Rainsy win the support of the military commanders who rule their regions rather independently?
Here is an interesting observation as published in the New York Times in an article by Thomas Fuller on Sept. 06:
Kem Lay, a researcher who has conducted surveys and studied social trends for government ministries as well as for the United States Agency for International Development, said Cambodian intellectuals and human rights advocates were ambivalent about their political choices.
But Mr. Kem Lay said he also saw autocratic tendencies in Mr. Sam Rainsy’s leadership of the opposition — and a generalized lack of competence and experience among the candidates that the party put forward in the July election. “It would have been a big disaster if the opposition had won the election,” Mr. Kem Lay said. “They are not ready.”
On Sept. 07 there was another article by Thomas Fuller in the NYT. The following quote succinctly sums up the situation.
Analysts question how long opposition supporters will remain passionate about the issue. The three-hour protest, which was peaceful and largely confined to a public square, seemed relatively unthreatening to the 28-year-long rule of Mr. Hun Sen, who in addition to the apparent loyalty of the army and the police has a praetorian guard of thousands of soldiers. His party machinery is firmly entrenched throughout the country, its domination stretching from national institutions to village patronage networks.
A rather worrisome Sam Rainsy trait is his blatant racism against Cambodians of Vietnamese origin. He calls them illegals. People who run on nationalistic platforms have historically never turned out to be good democrats and leaders. So in my mind it is rather doubtful whether he would be a good choice for prime minister. But who else is there? And finally, can Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, originally no bosom buddies, maintain that new alliance over the medium term or will it break apart due to inner disagreements? Stay tuned.
The next five years will show whether it will be more of the same or whether there will indeed be the necessary changes, e. g. the separation of power, a reduction in corruption, a comprehensive reform of the public sector, etc., and most of all, a generational change - but not from father to son (the Hun family comes to mind) but a real change of ideas, concepts, and a commitment to real democracy.