A week later, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) indeed introduced new legislation to amend the Political Party Laws. The new amendments, among other things, ban any individual convicted of a crime from standing in an election and dissolve any political party whose leader is a convicted criminal. These amendments are believed to target the CNRP, the main opposition party.
Rainsy’s resignation must be framed in the context of Cambodia’s conflicted and contentious electoral politics, particularly his party’s better than expected performance in the 2013 national elections. The CNRP’s success redefined Cambodia’s political arena, and the CPP suddenly needed to reassess its strategies in dealing with opposition parties and connecting to voters.
The CPP has appointed new, highly educated technocrats to top leadership positions such as at the education and environment ministries, and the Electricity Authority of Cambodia. These entities have made their policies and services more transparent and responsive to people’s needs. The government has also raised salaries for workers and public servants across the board, a major CNRP campaign promise.
Yet entrenched legacies of patronage and cronyism in Cambodia have meant that reforms in other areas remain an uphill struggle. Despite the government’s rhetoric and some concrete actions — such as investigations and arrests of corrupt officials — public perception toward the government’s anti-corruption efforts remains low. The Transparency International’s corruption ranking index lists Cambodia at 156 out of 176 countries.
There is also popular discontent over the effects of crony-based extraction of natural resources such as forests, land and now sand that has adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and remains unresolved. Through social media, these issues have inspired civic consciousness, a phenomenon that the CPP cannot ignore.
Besides initiating reforms, the CPP has also attempted to co-opt the CNRP as a junior partner, primarily through the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’. From the CPP’s perspective, a ‘culture of dialogue’ means no mutual criticism. Yet given its strong performance in 2013 elections, compounded by Rainsy and CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha’s dedication to topple the CPP, the CNRP could not help but heighten its criticisms of the CPP in anticipation of election season.
In responding to these criticisms, the government filed a number of defamation suits against Rainsy and Sokha. One of the lawsuits landed Rainsy a two year jail sentence that drove him into self-exile in 2015. As conditions currently stand, due to Rainsy’s criminal conviction, the CNRP would have been dissolved if the government’s proposed legislation passed with Rainsy as leader. This places a huge question mark over the fate of the CNRP post-Rainsy and the outcomes for this year’s local elections and next year’s general elections.
Rainsy’s fight against Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP will continue. His campaign to delegitimise the CPP and Hun Sen will likely occur in the international arena through lobbying and lawsuits in foreign countries like the United States and at the International Court of Justice. He will certainly continue to have influence over the CNRP’s direction through his loyal subordinates within the party and will be involved in the campaign process via cyberspace.
Since the 1993 internationally-sponsored elections, the CNRP is the only party that has had organisational structures of similar scale to those of the CPP — albeit with much fewer resources. Possessing these structures means that the CNRP is unlikely to become irrelevant just because of Rainsy’s absence. Kem Sokha is also a known entity in Cambodian politics. Given his deep roots in Cambodia and the path he adopted before he launched his own political party, Sokha has expanded his popularity with both urban and rural voters.
Before merging with Rainsy’s Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP, Sokha created his Human Rights Party from the bottom up, attracting support from rural villagers when he travelled through rural Cambodia as a human rights advocate. His appeal to urban voters rose during the 2013 election campaign, when he had to perform solo in the absence of Sam Rainsy and subsequently remained resolute in the face of government intimidation. Yet the future of the CNRP will be completely different if the CPP-dominated courts decided to convict Sokha on one of several ongoing legal issues.
The CNRP’s performance will depend on the Cambodian electorates’ assessment of the CPP — especially young voters. The issue is whether they can be convinced that the status quo could create an environment that enables them to fulfill their aspirations. If the CPP falls short in fulfilling the aspirations of these restless youth, then the CNRP will be a force that the CPP will have to reckon with.
Kheang Un is Associate Professor of political science at the Northern Illinois University