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Cambodia: the changing political landscape

By Verghese Mathews - posted Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Historians and political commentators will look back at 2006 as a defining year for Cambodian politics - as the year that changed the political landscape in a manner that few had anticipated. And yet the changes were long in the offing and, in hindsight, there was a clear strategy that escaped scrutiny given all the usual distractions - the never ending infighting, the ever present treachery, the underlying deviousness and the debilitating one-upmanship that have been characteristic of Cambodian politics since the UN sponsored elections of 1993.

The ghost of the 2003 elections

To appreciate the changed political landscape, it may be pertinent and instructive to look back briefly to the General Elections of July 2003.

The post-election period, a repeat of the madness of the previous two elections, was particularly significant in that the unprecedented spectre of 11 wasted months of frustrating negotiations to form a coalition government was etched deep in the collective memory of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP).


They bitterly claimed that the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the royalist FUNCINPEC Party (FCP) took unfair advantage of the democratic process. The CPP was determined never again to allow the losers in an election to hold the winners to ransom because of a kink in the constitution.

In the event, the CPP performed handsomely, winning 73 of the possible 123 seats, but could not form government as it was nine seats short of a two-thirds majority that was the constitutional requirement for a party to form government by itself.

The royalist FCP which went into elections badly factionalised and despite some spirited campaigning in the last few weeks, limped home with a mere 26 seats - a far cry from the 53 seats it secured in 1993 and the 43 seats in 1998.

The SRP, the smallest of the three parties, did comparatively well capturing 24 seats, a creditable jump from the 15 seats it held in 1998.

Following the elections, the SRP and the FCP formed a loose alliance to prevent the CPP from forming government without them gaining sufficient political concessions. What followed were 11 wasted months before the FCP finally broke ranks and joined the CPP in a coalition on July 15, 2004.

The cosy personal and working relations between Hun Sen and Ranariddh following the formation of the coalition government deteriorated soon enough. In a pique over various intended and perceived irritations, Ranariddh impetuously resigned as Chairman of the National Assembly, leaving his party embroiled in ugly infighting and weakening his authority as party leader. It was downhill after that for this very personable prince.


Meanwhile, all was not well in the SRP either, following the stripping of the parliamentary immunity of Sam Rainsy and two other party members in February 2005 to face criminal defamation charges earlier filed by Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Rainsy fled Cambodia and remained abroad for a year and only returned after Hun Sen accepted his apology and the unconditional withdrawal of his earlier allegations against Hun Sen.

Rainsy's continued self-exile had worked against him and consensual wisdom is that he decided on the compromise when it became increasingly obvious to him that some credible aspirants were eyeing his post in the party.

That compromise was the turning point in recent Cambodian political history. It suited Rainsy's immediate needs and dovetailed superbly with the CPP's long term strategy. Under the bargain Rainsy would move a constitutional amendment in Parliament to lower the seat requirement for formation of government. In return Hun Sen would drop all court charges against his nemesis, decriminalise defamation and seek the King's pardon to absolve Rainsy from the 18 months imprisonment term for defamation he had been handed in absentia.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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