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A new phase in Cambodian politics

By Verghese Mathews - posted Monday, 4 August 2008

If there was anything absolutely certain about the fourth Cambodian General Elections on Sunday, July 27, it was that the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) was poised to win handsomely. This was an accepted certainty well before the spat between Cambodia and Thailand over Preah Vihear temple.

Official results are awaited but the unofficial polls count suggest that the CPP has done better than initially expected and may well have won more than two-thirds of the 123 seats contested by 11 political parties. If it crosses the two-thirds mark, it will be the first time ever, since the landmark 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, that a single party has achieved such success. The CPP, which started off as a communist party following the Khmer Rouge overthrow in 1979, would have very good reason to celebrate.

This election has also seen much less violence than the last three elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003 - which is a good enough reason for everyone and the neighbourhood to celebrate.


Even if the two-thirds is denied the CPP, there is reason for celebration as it will be the first time since 1991 that a single party has taken control of government in a general election. Previously a party had to secure two-thirds of the seats to form government and no party was able to do so. This led to the formation of a fractious coalition after each of the previous elections between the CPP and the royalist FUNCINPEC party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Following the last elections in which the CPP scored 73 seats the formation of the coalition with FUNCINPEC (26 seats) took one long year - seen by many as a debilitating and wasted year.

It is different this time around. The Constitution was amended with the support of the opposition to allow any party which obtained more than 50 per cent of the seats to form government. While there was no doubt then that the CPP would form the next government, the party did not take this for granted. Importantly, it had no delusions that it was not universally liked in Cambodia and that the opposition and the royalist parties had good people with good ideas and with significant support in the country.

The CPP addressed the obvious challenges by ensuring that its parliamentarians and workers were in the field, in their constituencies and in the opposition constituencies, day in and day out, listening to the rural folk, rebutting opposition claims or explaining government action. The CPP badly wanted to rule by itself, having decided after the last elections that it would no longer waste a year negotiating a coalition government.

Much of the credit for the CPP success must go to the collective CPP leadership in running a tight ship on the one hand and delivering roads and irrigation canals and schools and clinics across the country on the other. Above all, there was a prevailing sense of stability in a country that had shed so much blood and so much tears.

In that context, there can be no denying that Prime Minister Hun Sen was pivotal in the CPP success. Like him or dislike him, the 2008 General Elections is in particular Hun Sen's personal success story.


While it may now appear that Hun Sen has stamped his authority over the CPP, it is more complex than that. Although he is now more powerful than at any time before in the party, the reality is that he is not all that powerful. He will be, but not just yet. Some things will have to be handled gingerly. Hun Sen will have to negotiate with the CPP leadership on the cabinet appointments. Given the CPP's track record, much of the horse-trading would already have been worked out - it will be the fine tuning now and that is where sensitivities lie. If anyone knows power play in Cambodia it is Hun Sen and former King Norodom Sihanouk.

There is also a strategic question on the table - whether or not to reach out to FUNCINPEC despite its poor showing and there being no need for a coalition. Better to have some of the losers in the tent theory!

The greater problem for Hun Sen in the cabinet line-up is to persuade some of the old faithful to retire and infuse the cabinet with fresh blood. In any country this has to be handled delicately. Hun Sen may not be able to achieve this in the forthcoming cabinet but can be expected to set the pace to do so the next time.

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First published in The Straits Times on July 30, 2008.

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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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