July 29, 2013

IT IS not surprising that Cambodia’s opposition party rejected the outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, despite a strong showing. The opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, declared, “There are too many irregularities, with far-reaching implications.” Election monitors reported that scores of people were turned away because their names were not on voter lists, and supposedly indelible ink to prevent fraud was easily washed off. On top of this, systematic problems in the election process were reported, including campaigning by security officers for the ruling party and unequal access to the media for opposition parties. Moreover, Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister, was permitted to return to Cambodia only in the days before the balloting. Clearly, the country’s long-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, has not abandoned his authoritarian ways.

But it would be a mistake to write off the vote as just another day in Hun Sen’s 28-year rule, which has brought a certain stability to Cambodia along with his heavy hand. The outcome suggests that democratic awakenings are afoot, despite the odds.

In the previous parliament, the governing Cambodian People’s Party held 90 of the 123 seats, but after this election it will hold only 68 seats. The main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, appears to have won 55 seats, compared with only 29that two now-merged opposition parties held previously. If these totals hold, the new balance of power will make it much harder for Hun Sen to amend the constitution, which requires two-thirds of the National Assembly, and give the opposition a larger voice on other matters.

Although Hun Sen has enjoyed strong support in the countryside, the vote underscored growing frustration with corruption and huge land concessions to Chinese and Vietnamese companies, which have benefited the prime minister’s allies. Cambodia’s economic growth has been rapid but has come with increasing tensions over wealth disparity. According to a report in the Economist from Phnom Penh, the surge for the opposition may also mark a generational shift and the emergence of a powerful youth vote; those who were born as Cambodia’s civil wars were ending two decades ago are just now coming of age. Armed with smartphones and social media, they “went to the barricades” for the opposition. This tended to blunt the impact of government-friendly media.

Sam Rainsy stirred crowds with his calls for change and clear populist streak. He returned to Cambodia from Paris on July 19 after a royal pardon removed the threat of a jail term; he was convicted in absentia in 2010 on criminal charges that observers said were politically motivated. Sam Rainsy has called for an independent committee to investigate the polling irregularities. But at a news conference he correctly captured the meaning of the vote: “People came in great numbers to express their will and democracy seemed to move forward.”