On 19 July, Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, returned to Phnom Penh to much fanfare. Crowds lined the roads across the city to welcome him back. His supporters, dressed in the white and blue colours of the CNRP, shouted ‘Change!’ and ‘Number seven!’ – the party’s number on the ballot. The previous week Rainsy had received a royal pardon for a conviction many saw as politically motivated, in time to return from France for yesterday’s election.
This was the fifth national election since Cambodia moved from socialist autocracy to supposed democracy after the end of the Cold War. The CNRP, formed in 2012 as a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, ran on an anti-corruption platform, promising to increase wages in the garment industry and to respect human rights and land rights, which have often been ignored in the name of development. The party’s nationalist rhetoric also played on fear of Vietnam, using racially charged language and alleging Vietnamese interference in the electoral process.
The Cambodian People’s Party has ruled in one guise or another since the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The prime minister, Hun Sen, has led the CPP as an authoritarian strongman for nearly thirty years. He stands at the apex of a patronage network that has enriched him and his political allies and ensured that the CPP holds the purse strings. The party bankrolls infrastructure and development projects that are often named after its functionaries. Their political apparatus is pervasive at all levels of society, from village communes and trade unions to the Buddhist Sangha.
During the electoral campaign the government emphasised the economic growth and political stability it has brought to the country after decades of civil war. The CPP was expected to win big in elections marked with irregularities. With preliminary results out, it seems that there were irregularities aplenty. In a startling development, however, the opposition has made significant gains – nearly doubling their number of seats in parliament. The CPP appear to have gained a majority, but both parties have claimed victory and the mood in Phnom Penh is tense. Everything hinges on the way the CPP reacts to this blow to its legitimacy. The CNRP has demanded an investigation into electoral fraud. On social media, people are reporting incidents of violence and speculating about the intentions of the CPP, who retain control of the military. There are unconfirmed rumours of troops arriving in Phnom Penh.