Cambodian elections puts Hun Sen on the back foot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 4:47pm

Cambodia faces a potential political stalemate unless strongman premier Hun Sen can strike a compromise with a resurgent opposition after hotly disputed elections, according to analysts.

Allegations of election fraud have flared since the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed it won polls last weekend, but its slender margin of victory has weakened prime minister Hun Sen’s hand.

The CPP on Sunday said it had secured an estimated 68 of the 123 lower house seats available, a 22-seat deficit from the last election but enough to edge aside the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which won 55.

If confirmed, it would be the ruling party’s worst election result since 1998.

The opposition has rejected the result, alleging massive rigging of the electoral roll to cheat them out off a landmark win, and threatened nationwide protest if the vote stands.

Its leader Sam Rainsy has called for a United Nations-backed probe into alleged election fraud, raising the prospect of political paralysis.

On Wednesday said that his party had won a majority 63 seats and repeated a vow to prevent the CPP “stealing victory”.

The row challenges the hitherto immutable Hun Sen to make concessions to the opposition and Rainsy, a French-educated former banker who returned to Cambodia in July from self-imposed exile after receiving a surprise royal pardon for criminal convictions which he contends were politically motivated.

“Hun Sen and the CPP will need to completely re-invent themselves to have any hope of recapturing their past commanding majority,” said Carl Thayer, Professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

But the omens are not good, he warned, adding “Hun Sen has not shown signs of being a born-again politician.”

Official election results are due to be released in mid-August, with parliament ordered to sit by late September.

While the CPP may press ahead and form a government even if the opposition boycotts parliament -- as it did in 2008 - Cambodians have “humbled and humiliated Hun Sen”, according to independent analyst Lao Mong Hay, a former researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.

“He has lost a lot of credibility and legitimacy,” he said, adding the ruling party can no longer “ignore” the public or “afford to be as arrogant as before.”

Moreover, the CPP’s admission that it has lost ground after taking 90 seats in 2008 elections may have carved a space for genuine two-party politics to develop.

The CPP “has barely survived, and the thin majority will have so weakened its legitimacy that its rule would be seen as dictatorial [unless it offers compromises],” Lao Mong Hay added.

The prospect of a prolonged impasse where the opposition refuses to join parliament unless the election result is reversed worries some analysts, who say the threatened street protests could spur violence.

“The two parties need to compromise,” said Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer from the Cambodian Defenders Project. “If each party stands firmly, it could lead to some problems, it could lead to bloodshed... if they negotiate with each other, nothing will happen.”

If the CNRP agrees to join the next parliament, policy-making may become far more complicated for the CPP with the government needing two thirds of parliament to approve certain laws.

But Hun Sen’s party has remained defiant despite the battering in the polls.

Chheang Vun, a senior CPP lawmaker, said “there will be no problem” in forming a new parliament, regardless of whether the CNRP joins.

“We cannot wait for them,” he added.

In 2008 the CPP refused to bow to opposition demands after similarly disputed elections and Hun Sen pressed ahead with the opening session.

The elections come as Cambodians increasingly vent anger at alleged rights abuses, in particular against land grabs -- many perceived to be supported by the kingdom’s authorities to protect powerful Vietnamese and Chinese interests.

But Hun Sen and his party still command loyal support, particularly in the impoverished rural heartlands, despite a reputation for suppressing dissent.

The 60-year-old prime minister has vowed to rule until he is 74, and has already been on top so long that many Cambodians fear the country would collapse if he was suddenly removed.

To many villagers, Hun Sen is a populist leader who has ensured stability since the bloody Khmer Rouge era and can claim to be one of their own in contrast to the foreign-educated Rainsy.

The outcome hinges on whether accommodation can be struck between the rivals. Some analysts predict the opposition will eventually dampen its rhetoric rather than risk unrest or paralysis to the political system.

“There is an extremist fringe [within the CNRP] which dreams of a ‘Cambodian Spring’,” one western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “But it’s a very small minority.”