Above: late afternoon discussion outside polling station, Sunday 28, Phnom Penh

Following the recent election contesting the long-ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party (CPP) against the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and others, comparisons are being made to prior polls. Here are a few notes worth keeping in mind as the parties try to come to an agreement:

1. 10 Days of Silence
The current Prime Minister (Hun Sen) is characteristically silent just prior to voting in elections, and for a time after elections  (10 days after the last election).  It’s been under-reported in the Western press that the PM’s father recently passed away, which would have made partisan campaigning seem petty. This silence is easy to fill with rumors. It’s also a great opportunity to allow the CNRP to make gaffe statements that could be exploited later, or call for demonstrations that could be quashed as ‘civil disobedience’.

It is characteristic of the PM to be quiet so that the CPP can discuss plans internally, and present a unified front to the press. The CPP has been running Cambodia for many years, and has no intention of losing out. It’s a curious combination of a government / political party / business / culture. In the CPP mindset, it’s almost unthinkable for them to *not* rule the country. Full stop.

2. The CPP still runs Cambodia
And will, for years to come. The military is solidly behind the CPP. So is (almost) the entire business sector, which has been granted many advantages by the ruling party. (They have funded CPP campaigns and local infrastructure projects, to ensure citizen support.) The judiciary, and most civil servants have been vetted by the CPP. The National Election Commision (NEC) is pretty clearly toeing the CPP’s party line.

CPP members think that they’re the good guys. The party participated in getting rid of the Khmer Rouge, many members take their jobs quite seriously, and are proud to have built a lot of infrastructure. The Cambodian Red Cross is run by the PM’s wife, and tycoons such as Kith Meng and Mong Rethy have charitable foundations. CPP stalwarts view the opposition as ambitious, inexperienced amateurs who would run the country into the ground.

Even if the CPP agreed to the CNRP’s claim to have a majority of seats, the new party will have to *work* with an administration that is solidly CPP in nature. Say what you like about CPP corruption and the separation of party and state – just how many *trained* administrators does CNRP have ready to field? CNRP will have to hammer out a way to work with CPP on a daily basis – a challenge that former opposition party FUNCINPEC tried to address by installing their own people. That didn’t work out so well.

Cambodia is more heavily mediated these days, and more exposed to the international community. If CPP-oriented government administrators don’t execute their roles in a non-partisan fashion, it’s much more likely to get out to the press.

Overseas Cambodians don’t often grasp how solidly the CPP has ingrained their control, all the way from regional village chiefs to the highest halls of power.

3. Follow The Money
In Cambodia, CPP Assemblymen and Senators actively look out for their commercial business interests, while in office.

With a huge CNRP win, the big question is: will business (both official and off the books) operate as usual?

The government doesn’t auction off land, it announces concessions after off-the-record negotiations. As in other ‘post-socialist’ states, it has created a class of tycoons who have virtual monopolies on various industries.
(I might speculate that’s in part why the Garment Manufacturer’s Association of Cambodia was set up; the government is simply more efficient and effective in dealing with industries as one large monopoly.)

There are huge numbers of informal / grey area businesses that are very apprehensive about what’s going to happen next.  FUNCINPEC made it very clear that it would coordinate existing financial enterprises with the CPP. No one wanted to stop the flow of commerce, however dubious it was.

With CNRP, that guarantee is not there at all. (Maybe they can learn to be corrupt really fast?)

4. Fail: Khmer language TV / Radio / Newspapers
Virtually all TV and radio in Cambodia is managed by pro-CPP actors. The vast majority of newspapers are pro-establishment.

While most readers of this blog are familiar with the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily, it’s important to keep in mind they’re read by a tiny fraction of the population.

On Sunday evening, TVK and Bayon TV announced the election results, and then cut to music performances. There had been a riot at Stung Meanchey’s polling station in Phnom Penh, and there was an interest in making sure unrest didn’t spread. (Bayon TV is owned by the Prime Minister’s daughter.)

On Saturday and Sunday, the two main ‘opposition’ radio outlets, ‘Beehive Radio’ and ‘Women’s Media Centerboth refrained from re-broadcasting foreign news.

The lull in news led to a wave of phone calls from the countryside inquiring ‘what’s going on in Phnom Penh’ – and accompanying rumors. While much of the international press was shared via social media (Facebook, Twitter and other outlets), the majority of Cambodians simply are not on these channels.

Faith in TV and radio really took a hit this last week. On Monday morning, informal public discussion was at an all-time high as ordinary people tried to assess what was actually happening with the election and the aftermath.

In reporting the news Monday, pro-government newspapers shared the NEC’s numbers, but minimized the overall effect. Ordinary Cambodians have started to look to overseas based sources of information, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the BBC, any foreign press outlet.

In Cambodia, English is the language of the internet, in part due to the late adoption of Khmer Unicode. This has resulted in an overwhelmingly Anglophone world of discussion and punditry, which has made it remarkably easy for overseas reporters and observers to parse. They should count their blessings: if this was Vietnam, Laos or Thailand, they’d be out of luck.

5. This may be the least ‘free and fair’ election yet
Anecdotally speaking: this is the first time I’ve had Khmer friends come to me and note that their name was not on the voter rolls, or that it had been voted by someone else. International monitoring organizations concur… mostly.,_Fair_and_Transparent_Context_is_everything.html

6. The CNRP’s Xenophobia Wins Votes, May Cost International Support
CPP political appointees, administrators, the army, the courts, the tycoons, and many ordinary folks are on the CPP’s side. The CNRP’s ‘ace in the hole’ has always been overseas Cambodians and human rights advocates.
For the sake of this point I’m going to call anti-Vietnamese rhetoric ‘racism’, when technically a more appropriate term could be ‘chauvinism’.

Sam Rainsy fled overseas after being sentenced in absentia for playing on anti-Vietnamese fears.
It was a clever maneuver to return during the election. And he immediately played the anti-Vietnamese card again. During a non-election period, it’s quite possible the CPP could have had him arrested for the statements he made on the podium. But during the election, that would have martyred him.

One of my Kampuchea Krom friends (Cambodian from Vietnam) who can speak both languages noted that ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia are often seen a homogenous mass, rarely individuals. He also noted the lack of outreach to that population from opposition groups. His words: ‘What’s the CPP done for them, really?’ They are not shock troops, nor secret agents. Blocking any citizen from voting is a crime.

Threatening, injuring and killing Vietnamese in angry protests could cause election monitoring groups and pro- ‘regime change’ organizations like International Republican Institute / Human Rights Watch / others to distance themselves from the CNRP.

7. The CNRP Can’t Be Seen Making an Easy Deal
After the 1993 election, FUNCINPEC (the former Royalist opposition party) and the CPP set up a power-sharing agreement that ended in a brief military fight in 1997.
FUNCINPEC eventually returned, but more in name than anything. After publicly agreeing to coordinate with CPP, the writing was on the wall. From 1993 to 2013, we’ve seen FUNCINPEC decline from a majority of seats to zero. FUNCINPEC was slowly and methodically whittled down, and CNRP has explicitly mentioned ‘they won’t bargain’ in their post election claims.

To get Assembly members in their seats, there will *have* to be an agreement with the CPP. But if it’s seen as too conciliatory, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha risk alienating their support base. CNRP voters in many cases feel they’ve put their personal safety on the line to get them these seats.

8. CPP Members / Supporters Are Jockeying for Position
Sure, you may be a candidate for the National Assembly. But what family are you from? Who are you married to? What business interests do you represent? Which party faction are you tight with?
During this election, children of CPP stalwarts were expected to be voted in, to solidify the party in a generational sense. This is much less likely now.

After FUNCINPEC’s stunning win in 1993, a number of older CPP party members stood aside to allow younger members to look after their entrenched interests.
It’s possible that this scenario may recur. However, it’s important to remember that ties of family, obligation, wealth and more figure into this complex negotiation. Some may even consider an opportunistic party switch.

Just to complicate things, CNRP hasn’t settled on a fixed number of seats.

9. Change: Easy To Say, Harder To Create
This election’s results were facilitated by Cambodia’s postwar ‘baby boom’ generation, now old enough to vote. (And quite proud about it.)

What change is CNRP promising? They’re campaigning against land grabs, and for an overall increase in social justice, in a country where the main arbitration bodies have been appointed by the CPP.

Cambodia’s main industries are essentially resource extraction, without any ‘value added’ processing. This is not beneficial to the country as a whole, but does make a quick buck.

For example, Cambodia does not even possess the capacity to mill all the rice grown locally. Excess is milled in Thailand and Vietnam. It’s not just an issue of industrialization, but food security.

Another example: garment factories use cheap Cambodian labor, but are *not* owned locally. The ‘Better Factories’ model is being exported to the world, but has come in for harsh criticism in recent reports.
It’s unlikely the garment industry would be reformed, nationalized, or changed in any way. (I’d be happy to be proved wrong.)

What substantial structural economic change can the CNRP make in 5 years, with an administration that may want to undermine them? That’s a tough ask.

10. English Discussions Give An Illusion of Press Freedom

That joke you made on Twitter? No one is picking it up in Stung Meanchey.

There’s heaps of humor, discussion and speculation in the English language press, mainly by foreigners – for foreigners.

Cambodia has been noted for its strongly Anglophone web community. Generally, English language discussion and commentary is discounted because it reaches such a small amount of the general public. So don’t mistake what you’re seeing on the internet for what’s actually being reported and discussed in-country.

I’m very proud of my Khmer ‘clogger’ friends who pioneered English language blogs and now are Twittering and Facebooking updates, updating the international community by summarizing Khmer language events. I’m not going to single any out, just check the hashtag #ElectionsKH and you’ll see for yourself.


Some links for further perusal:

NY Times Election Summary:
Historian David Chandler on Cambodian Elections:
Cambodia: Time For Transformation? (Caroline Hughes)
2013 Elections And Social Change (Erik Davis)
Ongoing Elections Results Mapping:
Committee For Free And Fair Elections In Cambodia
PP Post Election Map:
Breaking the silence: ‘Hun Sen welcomes international investigation’ (PP Post)
(Typos / grammar tweaks & some links added Aug 01.)

Comments: I welcome constructive criticism and clarifications. This was written largely to update my overseas friends who are not familiar with Cambodia’s election or its players.

Due to spam and politics trolls, I personally approve all comments. If you do not see yours right away, just assume I am away from my desk. Patience is a virtue.   : )

8 Responses to “10 Things You Should Know About Cambodia’s 2013 Election”

  1. Monika says:

    Great summary!

  2. David Chandler says:

    Lovely, fine-grained analysis, John.

  3. nathalie says:

    some good reminders for even those of us living and working here a while. thanks :-)

  4. Don Jameson says:

    I am very impressed by your broad knowledge of Cambodia and found your links to other information/analysis about the 2013 election particularly useful. David Chandler tells me that you are a former student of his, obviously a very good one. Now that I am aware of your site (which was communicated to me by Geoffrey Cain) I will following your postings with interest. Best regards, Don

  5. maddy says:

    Thank you for all the research and ideas put forward, this really is the best piece I have read so far, and has highlighted my anglofile dependancy. Whilst living in Cambodia, it is still hard for Khmers to explain their points of view to me, and for me to understand the real situtaion on both sides.

    Thanks again, I am grateful to have learnt so much more through your writing.

  6. [...] analyzed the election results and mentioned some voting irregularities Anecdotally speaking: this is the [...]

  7. [...] analyzed the election results and mentioned some voting irregularities Anecdotally speaking: this is the [...]

  8. Robert says:

    Great stuff, John!

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