Cambodia election 2013: support people, not parties

After Cambodia’s fifth general election on Sunday, DiA blogger Joe Buckley asks who really sticks up for the poor in the country’s political system

Who sticks up for Cambodia's poor? Photo by mistagrrr/ Creative Commons

Who sticks up for Cambodia’s poor? Photo by mistagrrr/ Creative Commons

On Sunday, Cambodia held its fifth ever general election. The winner is no surprise: Hun Sen, the rather authoritarian leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), remains as the county’s Prime Minister, extending his 28 year rule. But the number of seats that the CPP has in the National Assembly, Cambodia’s parliament, has been reduced significantly, from 90 to 68 out of 123. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition, has won 55 seats.

The CNRP has cried foul, claiming widespread electoral fraud. All of Cambodia’s elections have been marred by corruption and fraud, and this year has seen the same concerns. The CNRP’s complaining is unsurprising because that’s what the party’s somewhat egocentric leader, Sam Rainsy, tends to do.

The CNRP has generally been presented as more progressive than the CPP, with promises to do things like reduce institutional corruption and raise the minimum wage. But should “progressives” really be singing the CNRP’s praises so much?

It’s easy to see why the CPP isn’t trusted – they at least semi-control everything, and Hun Sen’s personal networks and authoritarian tentacles stretch to all aspects of Cambodian society. Politics, economics, media, culture – even comedians – all seem to be under the thumb of Hun Sen and his allies. When the government sees independent media sources becoming influential, they often deal with this problem by beating up or locking up journalists. Hun Sen also has his close circle of cronies who he puts in important and powerful positions. Furthermore, his regime isn’t exactly pro-poor, and is widely suspected of covering up the murder of trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. The government also spent years refusing to allow a statue of the unionist to be displayed, until recently bowing to sustained pressure.

Given all this, the CNRP is naturally seen as a breath of fresh air. Some of its policies, such as raising the minimum wage for factory workers and civil servants, should be supported, and should reflect what workers have been demanding for some time. Many workers consider the party’s leader, Sam Rainsy, to be sympathetic to the poor.

This sounds all very well, but who is the CNRP? It’s a merger, formed for this election, of two other parties: the Sam Rainsy Party, and the Human Rights Party. The Human Rights Party was a very small organisation, while the Sam Rainsy Party has always been one of the CPP’s main opposition parties. Sam Rainsy, leader of the Sam Rainsy Party, has become the leader of the CNRP. A former banker in France, he fled Cambodia in 2009 after being convicted on (possibly politically motivated) charges. Rainsy only returned to Cambodia a couple of weeks ago.

Aside from their higher wage policy, Rainsy and the CNRP have a bizarre obsession with anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and blame them for basically everything, from unemployment to Hun Sen’s election victories.

The CNRP appeals to both rural peasants and the urban poor, and the party likes to present itself as sympathetic to this demographic. But Sam Rainsy is a former banker, a profession that is not particularly known for being pro-poor and friendly to labour. Furthermore, Rainsy’s party has been supported by the International Republican Institute, which was founded by Ronald Reagan and now chaired by John McCain. Its members – mainly US Republicans – were recently campaigning for US aid to Cambodia to be cut if Hun Sen won the election. A large proportion of the funding for the Sam Rainsy Party come from US Republicans, who still hate Hun Sen because of his old communist, Khmer Rouge associations. Republicans are, of course, known for deregulating labour markets and social protections. All this contradicts the image of the CNRP as pro-poor, and it is difficult to see how, if ever in power, the CNRP could turn its pro-poor rhetoric into real change, considering its right wing backers.

Meanwhile, land grabs in the Cambodian countryside are continuing, in order for companies to secure access to products from sugar to rubber. Urban workers are working under deteriorating conditions, and many suffer when managers refuse to pay wages for months. This disregard and neglect of both labour and land rights relies on the backing and the will of the government to allow it to continue.

Unfortunately, there are no assurances that Sam Rainsy, if ever in power, would actually enact pro-poor, labour friendly legislation, given his party’s contradictions, outlined above. The CNRP may be better than the CPP, but we should not put the CNRP on a pedestal. Rather, we should lend our support to Cambodia’s labour movement, which is managing to secure concessions from business and government, in very difficult circumstances. It is this movement that has the potential to secure progressive policies, not a party that is full of internal paradoxes and contradictions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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One comment
  1. The anti vietnamese rhetoric is absolutely not bizarre. It is a political trick to gain voters. A very dangerous one I think. I don’t see how the CNRP can implement less pro-poor policies than previous ones. One of the main propositions of the CNRP is to start to rise up taxes which I think is not really in line with the Republican party. Well I didn’t really deeply looked at the CNRP propositions but the author of the article seems to haven’t done much either.

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