What’s going on?

July 31, 2013

Well, the elections have happened, and Cambodia is now enveloped in a cloud of unknowing. With official results not available until the middle of August, unofficial results seem to show that the ruling CPP had a disaster, and lost at least 22 seats, winning only 68, to the opposition’s 55. The opposition CNRP is also claiming victory, saying it won 63 seats, and is calling for an investigation into electoral fraud.

The CPP were undoubtedly hit by an emerging youth vote, combined with the votes of former loyalists who were angered by incessant land grabbing, corruption and an extraordinary culture of impunity among the politically connected. Moreover, online media broke the traditional stranglehold of the typically government-friendly press on election coverage during campaigns.

Now, no one thinks the CPP are actually likely to cede power to the CNRP. But the stalemate could drag on for a while, with the next session of the new parliament not due for two months. So the country is stuck in limbo. There are wild rumours about potential rioting, and expats are stupidly nervous, although everything seems calm and orderly to me. There was an incident on Sunday night where a couple of police cars were overturned and set on fire, but really nothing to worry about. The shelves of supermarkets are apparently bare, and the country’s largest bank saw $4 million withdrawn from ATMs on Sunday night, but, to me, the mood seems fine.

The CPP has had to deny rumours that Hun Sen had fled the country, but I think that was wishful thinking on the part of the opposition.

The CPP have been congratulated by the leaders of Thailand and Bangladesh on their victory, which must be a comfort. The US has called for an investigation into ‘irregularities’ and advised US citizens “to limit their movements, avoid areas prone to gatherings, and immediately vacate any area where crowds are gathering.” China has said nothing yet, perhaps ominously.

There are interesting parallels with the ongoing elections in Zimbabwe – the two countries are roughly the same size, are ruled by long-serving autocrats, have bloody histories, tiny per-capita GDPs, endemic corruption, awful land reform issues and terrible public services. Luckily, Hun Sen isn’t calling for the public beheading of homosexuals, and isn’t even on the top ten list of the World’s Worst Dictators. So I think we should be thankful.




July 26, 2013

“D’oh ri min d’oh?” – “Change or no change” – that’s what thousands of teenagers are shouting across Phnom Penh during the last full day of campaigning for the fourth round of national elections, to be held on Sunday. The streets are impressively full of young people, riding in their thousands along the city’s boulevards, chanting and banging drums as they make a final push for votes for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). They’ve been invigorated by the arrival in the country of party head Sam Rainsy, who has spent the last few years in self-imposed exile to escape spurious legal charges. However last week Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a royal pardon for him, conferring a fig leaf of respectability on an electoral process that few believe will be free and fair.

Sam’s reappearance has reinvigorated the opposition; more than 100,000 people turned up at the airport to celebrate his arrival. Everyone I’ve talked to is happy to see him; my tuk-tuk drivers all flash CNRP badges at me when asked about their voting intentions. And yet Sam was widely seen as a nutjob by reporters on the paper, and he’s far too quick to play the vile anti-Vietnamese card to be taken entirely seriously.

Which is lucky for Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, but bad news for a country that desperately needs a decent opposition. In the end, Sam has precisely no chance of taking power from Hun Sen (he can’t even stand, having been stripped of his seat). Hun Sen is so relaxed he even gave up personally campaigning last week. However he has warned that civil war will erupt unless his party is re-elected and launched personal attacks on deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, accusing him of adultery and paedophilia, among other crimes, without actually presenting any evidence.

Two of Hun Sen’s sons, who are standing, have remained at the stump. His party, the CPP, has massive standing in rural areas, and will deliver the votes he needs with a comfortable majority. But in the cities, especially in Phnom Penh, things will be much tighter.

So far, the elections have been rather good fun; cheerful, good-natured, surprisingly free of violence. I was outside just now watching an encampment of several hundred CPP cadres dancing to Achey-Breaky Heart in the noonday heat.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts in an briefing paper that while Hun Sen will win overwhelmingly, his sons “would be wise to pay attention to the trajectory of South-East Asian politics. Strong arming, corruption, intimidation and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long,” the paper said.