Cambodia has a complex political history. Sandwiched between two powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, and attracting attention from further flung countries such as Japan, USA and France, Cambodia unfortunately has mainly suffered at the hands of international policy makers. It also has a tragic national political history as well with coups, civil wars and disastrous regimes leaving a traumatized population and a broken economy.
In the second decade of the 21st century, Cambodia is at long last showing signs of recovery and prosperity, but the political situation remains unstable. With half the population under 30 years old, there is a rising mass of people who – now with access to information technology – are for the first time making demands of their leaders.
Between the fall of the Khmer Empire (mid 15th century) and the middle of the 19th century, Cambodia was variously invaded by Thailand and Vietnam, with whole parts of the country coming under the control of one or other of their neighbors at different times. King Norodom Sihanouk negotiated an agreement with the French in 1867 that established Cambodia as a French Protectorate. This helped the King claim back parts of Cambodia, but also resulted in a loss of control over the political development of the country.
King Norodom Sihanouk wrestled control from the French in 1953, and then abdicated the throne to go into politics, assuming the title of Prime Minister. In an almost impossible position, and trying to keep Cambodia from being involved in the disastrous regional war, his politics became increasingly repressive, alienating many involved in government. This led to both Lon Nol’s disastrous coup in 1970, as well as the development of the Khmer Rouge (literally “Red Khmer”) who captured Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975. The horror of the following 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, during which around a quarter of Cambodia’s population died or fled, all but destroyed the country.
The Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese, with the support of some Khmer Rouge defectors who had escaped to Vietnam. Civil war followed, until the UN arrived in 1991 with UNTAC (The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) – a peacekeeping operation tasked with administrating an independent state and organizing and running free and fair democratic elections. These eventually took place in May 1993, although it is disputed how “free and fair” they actually were. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party came second in the election, with Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party gaining slightly more seats. However, the proposed coalition by FUNCINPEC actually resulted in installing Hun Sen as Prime Minister, and the Prince become politically sidelined even though he was elevated to King.
Despite the elections and the presence of UNTAC, peace did not really come to Cambodia until 1998 when Pol Pot died. Until then, fighting was still present in many parts of the country – especially in the north where the remnants of the Khmer Rouge retreated. Since this time, Hun Sen has retained a firm grip on Cambodian politics. The controversial election in 1998 saw Hun Sen finally oust Ranariddh totally from the political field (despite many claiming the FUNCINPEC won the most votes for a second time) after a tense period of factional fighting during which many FUNCINPEC members were shot and Ranariddh fled the country. Despite these actions, and Hun Sen’s atrocious record on human rights violations and systemic corruption, many Khmer people see him as the savior of Cambodia. He is the figurehead who rescued the country from the Khmer Rouge, united north and south and brought prosperity and foreign investment.
“The Kingdom of Cambodia” is a constitutional monarchy with the King as Head of State and the Prime Minister as head of a parliamentary, representative democratic government. The government is made up of two parts; The National Assembly and The Senate.
The National Assembly has 123 members, elected for a five-year term by proportional representation. The Prime Minister is a representative from the ruling party of the National Assembly and is officially appointed by the King on the recommendation of the President of the National Assembly.
The Senate has 61 members. Two members are appointed by the King, two by the National Assembly and the remaining 57 should technically be elected popularly. However there these elections were “postponed” for some years in Cambodia and finally took place in 2006. The election process was criticized for being undemocratic, and left the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) party holding 43 seats. As a result, the influence of the CPP in Cambodian politics is almost absolute, with a vast majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate, making opposition and amendments to proposed legislation unlikely.
For many years Hun Sen’s CPP party held a strong majority in the National Assembly, controlling 90 out of 123 seats. The Sam Rainsy Party, which emerged in 1998 after its eponymous leader split from FUNCINPEC, has been the most popular opposition party since. Sam Rainsy, however, has fled the country twice, having been charged with various crimes including defamation, racial incitement and destruction of property. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years. His party struggled to maintain a credible opposition without its leader until it joined with the Human Rights party in 2012 to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP)
With elections looming in 2013, Hun Sen and the CPP were under intense international pressure to ensure truly democratic elections. As a result, Sam Rainsy received an official pardon. Although ineligible to stand for election (as his party is now merged and has a new leader, Kem Sokha) Rainsy returned to Cambodia a few days before the election and campaigned heavily for the CNRP. The swing away from anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to focus on anti-corruption messaging helped Rainsy and the CNRP and galvanized the youth vote. With the CPP in full control of television and radio media, leaving Rainsy and the CNRP only able to campaign in person and on social media, it was uncertain how much support CNRP could really garner. However, despite the usual complaints of “irregularities” in the election process, the CPP gave unofficial results ceding a further 27 seats to CNRP. This would give CNRP 44% of the vote, in relation to CPP’s much weakened 49%.
Despite this massive gain, CRNP rejected the results of the election, claiming victory themselves and calling for an enquiry into the election. As a result, Cambodia is currently in a political no-man’s land, with armored personnel lining the streets of Phnom Penh in case of political demonstrations.