Last Sunday’s national election was stunning in terms of a high voter turnout rate and landslide victory of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). However, there are pressing questions on whether the small parties won any seats in the National Assembly to usher in a truly multi-party democratic system.
According to preliminary election results by the National Election Committee, CPP received slightly more than 77 percent of the popular vote, and there’s a high likelihood that they will snap up all the 125 seats at the National Assembly. It is the first time since 1993 that the CPP has won in a clean sweep. Without doubt, the CPP has brought stability and economic prosperity to the Kingdom and voters gave them their resounding support for the sake of continuity. But despite this, international perception also does matter for a small country like Cambodia.
The question now is how will the CPP-led government, which will be formed sometime in September, convince the international community that a multi-party system functions in the country when there are no other political parties present at the National Assembly. Also to be borne in mind is that according to preliminary NEC results there were close to 600,000 invalid votes cast on Sunday and 18 percent of registered voters failed to turn up at the polling stations. Quite clearly this should be read as some form of resentment against the current status quo.
Therefore, what should be the next steps of the future government to allow for more choice and a variety of opinions to be heard?
Firstly, the future government needs to reform some election laws in order to give political space and a role for small political parties. The government should consider amending the electoral legal framework to empower them. Currently, the proportional representation system favours major political parties. One of the ways to reform the legal system is to change it from proportional representation at the local level to a national level.
Secondly, since the CPP has received a higher mandate and with it a heavier responsibility to be accountable to the people, robust reforms are a must in order to meet the aspirations of Cambodians. The voters have expressed their trust and confidence in the CPP’s policy platforms and promises to deliver better services and generate more opportunities for the people, especially job opportunities for young Cambodians.
Good governance, which includes the promotion of accountability and transparency, should be emphasised in future reform programmes in order to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of public services.
Third, the government must include new faces and infuse fresh ideas into the new Cabinet by giving more opportunities and responsibilities to young leaders, and bridging the trust and knowledge gap between the older and younger generation of leadership. The CPP’s intellectual assets have not been fully utilised due to an outdated leadership culture and power hierarchy of the institutions. Sadly, nepotism has prevented qualified people from serving in public institutions. Meritocracy therefore must be adopted and promoted in order to better utilise intellectual resources and manage talents.
Fourthly, in terms of foreign policy, the future government must further diversify and strengthen its strategic partnerships with major and middle powers. As it is right now, Cambodia only has two strategic partners – China and Japan. Cambodia should considering exploring strategic partnerships with Russia, India, South Korea, Indonesia, and Australia. The country clearly needs a strategic hedging foreign policy and not be beholden to one partner in order to seek the middle ground to embrace cooperative policies with other nations. This is a form of a geopolitical insurance strategy that would enable Cambodia to walk a fine line, balancing its relations with China and remaining neutral while cooperating with the US and EU.
Although the CPP has secured an unprecedented electoral victory, the legitimacy of the government will rely on the results of reforms especially in fighting against corruption, strengthening state institutions, and empowering youth leaders.
On the international front, diplomacy and foreign policy will be more challenging amidst mounting pressures and sanctions from the US and the European Union. International relations is increasingly more about smart power than hard power and old school chest pounding and thuggish threats must give way to cultured diplomacy, from all sides.