On Elections–What does it mean? What will it change?

As a resident of Phnom Penh, a researcher in religion and feminism, not a scholar of political science, and with just a basic understanding of Cambodia’s political history, I’d like to explain to others who know even less than the little that I know about last week’s election and its significance.

On July 28, the Cambodian people went to the polls to vote in the national election.  The current ruling party, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is a descendant of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party which was the sole political party after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese.  Since the first UN-monitored election in 1993, in which a coalition government with the royal party FUNCIPEC, the CPP appears to have pretty steadily increased its power.  But this year something dramatically different has happened.

The CPP Information Minister unofficially announced on his Facebook page on the night of the election that the CPP had retained only 68 seats and the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had 55 seats whereas previously the CPP had 90 out of the 123 seats.  This CPP-reported result differs from the results that the CNRP has reported, in which they say they won the elections by a count of 63 to 60.

The official election body, the National Election Committee (NEC) whose impartiality has been questioned, has not given even a preliminary result (scheduled to be released on August 10) and there are reports of voter irregularities (people turned up and their name  was not on the list or people came to vote and a vote has already been made in their name, for example).

But still, while we wait to see how various players respond and what the outcome is, one thing is for sure, something unexpected and dramatic has taken place.  Even if the CPP-reported result and even with reports of irregularities, we can see that support for the ruling party, or at least its performance, has weakened.

Different friends in Cambodia have different analyzes and explanations for what has happened.

Some say that the ruling party has gone too far in making economic concessions which leave people landless or displaced from their income-generating activities.  Or perhaps corruption has become too blatant and effects people’s lives so that they can’t get ID cards or passports because it’s just too expensive.  Lives are too negatively affected and people are looking for a change.

Others note that the biggest difference they observed in this election is that the people no longer appear to be afraid to stand up and oppose the ruling party.  During the campaign people paraded in the streets shouting Change! (the current regime) and were not violently suppressed.  On election day, at least in one location, instead of the CPP supporters hanging around and bringing people to vote, intimidating anyone who was not a party supporter, the opposite occurred.  People questioned outsiders–people who were not from the village but who had come to vote here, not wanting their votes to be undone by such unfair tactics.

We cannot know what will change due to this surprise result.  Most everyone I have spoken with about the election, Cambodian and foreigner alike, was not expecting anything like this.  Some say the prime minister will have to behave differently.  Others say that the CPP will break their unity of the opposition, incorporating some of the opposition lawmakers, thereby dismantling it.  In recent reports, the prime minister has allegedly given two possible scenarios both of which keep the CPP in control.  The CNRP has called for a full review and investigation that includes representatives from both parties and the UN.  If the government does not made a good faith effort to investigate irregularities, there may be demonstrations by those who were so brave in choosing not to support the ruling party.  We cannot know what the political result will be but we can see that in Cambodia something appears to be changing.  For this reason alone, these are exciting and unprecedented times.

If you’re interested in following this story as it unfolds, I’d recommend checking out the English-language version of the newspaper, The Cambodia Daily.