Political uncertainty is on the rise after the dissolution of the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). International pressures and threats to impose sanctions on Cambodia are mounting.
The Cambodian economy will be hit, at least in a short term, if the US and the European Union decide to impose soft sanctions such as trade preferential treatment schemes, asset freezing and travel bans on senior government officials and their families.
Overall, the political outlook is bleak due to increasing structural uncertainties stemming from deepening political polarisation and distrust, and to some extent, foreign intervention.
Notwithstanding the pressures and the risks posed by the international community, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) firmly believes that its decision to dissolve the opposition party best serves long-term interests, or in other words, the CPP has opted for short-term risks for long-term gains.
There are three reasons explaining the move of the CPP-led government. Firstly, the government is concerned over the possibility of regime change through the so-called colour revolutions orchestrated by the CNRP in cooperation with foreign powers.
Hence, maintaining peace and stability at any cost is of utmost important to the government. The CPP believes that there is no development without peace and stability.
Secondly, international interference is largely perceived as another source of threat to the establishment. For the CPP, the best way to eliminate the threat to the power status quo is to disconnect the CNRP with foreign powers.
Thirdly, the CPP might have a plan to deepen reforms and deliver concrete results to win the people’s hearts. With the absence of the existential threat from the CNRP, the CPP could spend more time and resources on improving its performance at both the national and local levels.
Amid declining input legitimacy, measured in terms of elections and democratic participation, the government will likely speed up its reforms by improving public services and institutions. Good governance and meritocracy are the main element of output legitimacy for any regime.
But, to what extent can the government strengthen its output legitimacy in order to mitigate the decreasing input legitimacy? It depends on the political will and leadership of the government. Fighting corruption needs to come from the top.
The political crisis will be temporary if the CPP has a plan to restore democracy and political dialogue, and strengthen good governance. But, if it is purely about power politics and there is no exit strategy, the crisis will last longer.
The CNRP has opted for a dual-track brinkmanship strategy. The CNRP has set up a kind of government in exile or international resistance movement against Hun Sen’s regime. The main objective is to delegitimise and destabilise the government.
Meanwhile, it also aims to trigger economic crisis in Cambodia through international sanctions, which in turn will lead to regime change. Economic measures, particularly against the ruling elites, are believed to be more effective than diplomatic pressures.
If there is no quick resolution and win-win exit strategy, Cambodia will likely fall into deep, long-term politico-economic crisis. This is the worst-case scenario.
The Cambodian political system is vulnerable to instability due to a serious lack of political trust with the absence of strong democratic institutions. Building and nurturing political trust between different political parties is the key to maintaining long-term peace and stability.
The core question is how to build political trust. Some efforts have been made, such as the programmes organised by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, to promote dialogue among different political parties. More of such efforts need to be developed.
Frequent, frank and honest dialogues can lead to trust and confidence building. It seems that currently there is no channel of direct communication between the two main parties.
Actions, reactions, and counter-reactions cause further distrust and tension. Advisably, both parties must reestablish channel of dialogue to gradually ease the tensions, while developing a mechanism to improve mutual confidence.
The international community needs to understand the political culture and history of Cambodia in order to create favourable conditions for dialogue between the two main political parties, seek common ground for political reconciliation and settlement, and strengthen institutions for long-term peace
Although the political situation is gloomy and highly unpredictable, there is a certain level of hope that political settlement will be realised before the general election in July 2018. Building political trust is a journey. Dialogue between Khmers is the best way to find solutions.
Chheang Vannarith is a Southeast Asian analyst based in Singapore and Phnom Penh.