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Did the recent elections in Cambodia change its future?

On Sunday the 28th July the Cambodians surprised western observes by voting probably Cambodian National Rescue Party NCRP to take power, in case the result of the elections changes after the studies of election frauds would favor them.
Tove Selin
5.8.2013

Prime Minister Hun Sen who has ruled Cambodia with iron grip and his party Cambodian People's Party CPP got however the majority with 68 seats in the parliament of 123 seats in total, against 55 seats for NCRP, according the preliminary results. However the dream of PM Hun Sen to rule the country for the next 20 years is rumbling.

The Parliament elections in Cambodia on 28th July were supposed to be the usual theatre what has been case in the elections there during the past years. CPP was supposed to get a landslide victory, but it failed. Surprisingly the second place of the elections at this point was taken by a new party NCRP which is a combination of two old parties, Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party who in earlier elections have go rather meagre results, only some 20 seats in the outgoing parliament. Now they got at least 55 seats in the new parliament.

Former economic minister Sam Rainsy, who recently returned to Cambodia from self-imposed exile is however blustering that they got at least 63 seats. Many observers reported frauds in elections, among others 1.25 million people missing from the election register and some ghost voters appearing in the register. In the previous week there was a stalemate, when opposition threatened boycotting the parliament. On Saturday 3rd of August Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy agreed on establishing an research commission studying the allegations of fraud in elections. the members of the commission are the senior members of CPP and CNPR, but the NGOs only get observatory status.

Though the Hun Sen government has almost 20 years managed to manipulate the elections according to its wishes, now it did not work. What has changed?

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One factor are definitely the youth and social media.

The reasons why so many people have voted for CPP include the fear of return Khmer Rouge and the 7 % economic growth. Now there is however quite large amount of young people, under 30 years, who don't have memories from the draconian rule of the Khmer Rouge but who know how to use social media. Sam Rainsy was very active in social media even before returning to Cambodia.

Young people are also very well aware of the human rights violations of the Hun Sen government and the costs of economic growth, including land grabs. The partner of Kepa Mekong, NGO Forum on Cambdodia, has arranged political discussions all around Cambdodia in the last spring and summer, where they invited all political parties, others came but CPP choose not to. The deputy director of NGO Forum, Mr. Tek Vannara, told that the discussions contributed the awareness of the people.

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Cambodia is half the size of Finland , 181 035 Sq. km with 15 million population, so it is rather small country in Southeast Asian context. Its neighbours have populations of 67 million (Thailand) and 90 million (Vietnam). Only Lao PDR is smaller, 6 million.

According to Thai professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak the elections in Cambodia have bigger implications in geopolitics. The Hun Sen government has favored China, who has been able to plunder the natural resources of Cambodia without regrets. The election result is however favouring western democracies (including Australia and Japan). China is already upset about Myanmar sliding to western influence from her own hemisphere. What implications the elections have to this balance of power in the region, remains to be seen. (Bangkok Post 2.8.2013).

Does anything change?

The Program Manager of Fisheries Action Coalition Team FACT, Mr Youk Senglong told that CNRP had promised before the elections that if they win 40 seats in the parliament they will change the decision to built a dam in Lower Sesan river. Also Sam Rainsy promised many good things in the video interview organizes in Foreign Coorespondents' Club of Thailand two months ago.

But if CNRP really gets power in forming for example a coalition government with CPP, one can doubt whether the destroying of natural resources and peoples homes will change at all. Mr Sam Rainsy is a neoliberal economist after all. Also Senglong and Vannara doubted CNRP's sincerity. The NGOs have established a situation room to monitor the aftermath of elections ceaselessly.

The author met the Cambodian NGOs in the annual meeting of the Save the Mekong Coalition in South Vietnam 31.7.-4.8.2013.