Cambodia's Prime Minister and president of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) Hun Sen waves during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Cambodia's Prime Minister and president of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) Hun Sen waves during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) appeared to make solid gains at Sunday’s highly anticipated commune election, but the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) once again dominated the democratic contest.

Official results are not due until later this month, but a government-aligned news outlet cited in various reports estimated that the CPP won 1,163 of the total 1,646 positions contested, or roughly 70% of the total seats. The CNRP finished a distant second with 482.

At the previous commune election in 2012, the CNRP’s two composite parties won a combined total of just 40 seats, marking a tenfold improvement. Opposition stalwarts were keen to emphasize those gains despite overall defeat.

“This is a big victory for the CNRP,” party spokesman Yim Sovann told media yesterday. “This means that we will manage around 500 communes in the upcoming mandate. Those are very big communes.”

In the northwestern province of Battambang, the CNRP is believed to have won 48 communes to the CPP’s 54. The opposition party did not win any communes in the once war-wracked province five years ago. The CNRP is also thought to have secured the majority of communes in the provinces of Siem Reap and Kampong Cham, as well as the capital Phnom Penh.

The CPP also touted the result as an electoral success. “It is already clear that the ruling party will remain a majority party in the National Assembly and continue to lead the government ahead,” Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page today. The premier had predicted “war” if the CNRP won Sunday’s polls.

Supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Only one of the contested communes did not go to either the CNRP or CPP, signaling a significant political consolidation towards two big party politics. While commune councilors have an important say in who fills the posts of the non-elected Senate, many analysts argue that Cambodia’s upper house is essentially powerless to alter or reject legislation.

Most commentators saw Sunday’s local election as a barometer for next year’s general election, which some believe could see the CPP lose power after almost four decades in government. Sunday’s result, however, shows the CPP still has strong support in rural areas.

The National Election Committee (NEC) estimated that as much as 89% of registered voters turned out on Sunday, while no provinces reported less than 80% turnout. This compares to 69.6% at 2013’s general election. Such a high voter-turnout was viewed as a sign of the importance of Sunday’s election, with many commentators hailing the public’s democratic participation.

The election was largely free and fair, independent observers say. Despite a few incidents under investigation, including reports that soldiers were bused in from another province to swing a key Siem Reap commune in favor of the CPP, a coalition of civil-society groups said the poll had gone “smoothly, safely and peacefully” – a significant result given initial concerns about possible violence and voter intimidation.

A young supporter of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party attends a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

There are competing assessments of the result. Some say the popular vote matters more than the number of communes the opposition party won because its strongholds tend to be in larger communes, including in urban areas. That means that the number of communes it won isn’t necessarily a reliable metric for the number of votes it received.

At a press conference, CNRP spokesman Sovann speculated that the party won 46% of the popular vote, compared to the CPP’s 51%. This has yet to be officially confirmed, but if so it would constitute a greater share of the popular vote than the opposition party secured at the 2013 general election.

“To get 46% today means at least 56% in 2018,” Monovithya Kem, a senior CNRP member and daughter of the party’s leader Kem Sokha, told Reuters. The CNRP needs to win seven more seats in the National Assembly next year to form a majority government.

The question now is how the two main parties prepare for next July’s general election. The CPP put on a brave face on Sunday despite a significant drop in votes for the second election in a row; in 2013 its number of seats in the National Assembly fell by 22.

“We lost some battlefields, but we still won the war,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told local media on Sunday.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister and Cambodian People’s Party leader Hun Sen waves during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

After the 2013 election, the CPP realized it was losing popularity and responded with a number of reforms, many of which were first proposed by the CNRP, including raising the minimum wage of garment workers and overhauling the tax system.

It also adopted a more appealing public appearance, especially through the use of social media to reach out to Cambodia’s youth.

With yet another downturn at the polls, however, it remains to be seen whether the government responds this time with more popular reforms or instead greater repression. After a brief respite in 2014 and 2015, the CPP has since last year unleashed a mass crackdown on opposition politicians and civil-society activists.

Amendments made to the country’s political parties law in February forced former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy to resign as president to avoid the party’s dissolution. However, the vaguely-worded amendments can still be wielded by the government to demobilize the party in the run-up to the 2018 election, analysts say.

Kem Sokha (L), leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party, greets supporters in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017.
Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

Even without more repression, the party faces an uphill battle to win a majority of votes, though CNRP stalwarts clearly believe the momentum is their favor with gains made at the last two elections, including Sunday’s commune polls.

Some commentators contend that the CNRP ought to focus more on policy pledges than generic vows. The party has yet to present a comprehensive manifesto ahead of next July’s vote. Now in charge of almost 500 communes, the opposition party must show the electorate quickly what it can do with political power.

Although the CNRP fell well short of the 60% of commune seats it predicted it would win before Sunday’s election, there is undeniable confidence among its members. “We can conclude that [after] the 2018 election, the CNRP will rule the country,” spokesman Sovann said.