Opposition gains in Cambodia may portend crack in strongman's power

Opposition lawmakers were sworn in Tuesday, after gaining promises of reform that ended their 10-month boycott of parliament. Prime Minister Hun Sen has long ruled with an iron grip.

Samrang Pring/Reuters
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy (bottom row, center L) of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) holds hands with his party's deputy president Kem Sokha (bottom row, center R) as they pose with their lawmakers at the National Assembly during a swearing-in ceremony at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh August 5, 2014. Cambodia's parliament endorsed Rainsy as a lawmaker as part of a deal with long-term rival Prime Minister Hun Sen that both leaders hailed as an end to a year-long political crisis.

Over the past 30 years, Cambodia’s politics have been tightly managed by one man and one group: Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party.

Mr. Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985 in the wake of the horrific killing fields of the Pol Pot regime, has long exercised complete control over the police, the parliament, and the press. But on Tuesday, 55 opposition lawmakers finally took their seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, in a deal that ends a 10-month opposition boycott sparked by claims of fraud in last summer's parliamentary elections. It also promises electoral reforms.

For Cambodians, the breakthrough is prompting speculation that their leader's iron grip on power may be starting to crack. No one is suggesting that Hun Sen is going anywhere quickly. But opposition leader Sam Rainsy has “carved out a space for the opposition to air its views, and he has attracted higher support for this party than any opposition party since 1993,” says Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a longtime observer of Southeast Asian politics.

Now the question is whether the opposition can capitalize on the opening, or if Hun Sen is maneuvering to divide and conquer his sometimes fractured opponents. 

Opposition gains

Under a deal reached on July 22 with Hun Sen's CPP, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will control five committees in parliament, head a newly created anticorruption committee, and be granted the deputy presidency of the National Assembly.

It will for the first time be allowed to obtain a license for a television station. Most important, the loathed National Election Committee, long seen as a tool of the CPP party, will be reconstituted with four members from each party and a ninth independent official. The head of one of Cambodia’s most respected human rights groups will take the helm if several conditions to protect the independence of the committee are enshrined.

For Rainsy and the opposition, the next year will determine how much influence the CNRP can wield under the terms of the deal, and how much latitude its supporters are willing to give the party to compromise. For Hun Sen and the CPP, it will be a test to see how much influence they can stomach losing, and whether – with its control of the press, the judiciary, and the armed forces – it will resort to the kind of aggressive tactics it used against protesters in January, when at least four were killed.

Tensions are already apparent. Scheduling the swearing-in took longer than expected, and last Saturday, three CNRP youth members were arrested for protests that turned violent last month. 

No tolerance for 'rebellion' 

Government spokesman Phay Siphan warned last week that the opposition needs to follow the rule of law, and attempts at "rebellion" will not be tolerated, suggesting a hard line toward more protests.

“We did not compromise to help them enjoy the power, we compromised to help move the society along,” says Mr. Siphan.

But the opposition is under pressure from supporters to make good on such campaign promises as cleaning up corruption and raising the minimum wage for garment workers. They have already hinted at revisiting controversial judiciary laws passed in their absence that grant more executive control over the courts, and creating a shadow cabinet. 

Pleasing constituents as well as the ruling party is going to be an onerous balancing act, says Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. 

If the political deal doesn't deliver on its promises, “many Cambodians may conclude that they can trust neither the dictator nor his nemesis and take their politics to the street,” he says.   

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