After a year of political deadlock the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have agreed to settle their differences. The CNRP, established in July 2012 by merging the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, challenged the predominant role of the ruling CPP in the July 2013 election. On 22 July, both parties reached a historical agreement and on 8 August, 55 CNRP members of parliament took their seats at the National Assembly to bring to an end a year-long boycott over alleged CPP vote-rigging.
The recently concluded power-sharing arrangement between the two parties involves reform of the National Election Committee and the National Assembly. Each party will elect four members to the National Election Committee and one independent member will be selected based on the consensus of both parties. The position of vice-president and chairperson of five commissions out of ten in the National Assembly will now go to CNRP. This institutional arrangement provides the CNRP with a roughly equal playing field in the National Assembly, although the CPP still holds the majority of seats with 68.
Still, the CNRP faces huge challenges. It needs to find effective ways to manage the expectations of its supporters and constituents and implement its election policy platform.
This is easier said than done. It is impossible for the CNRP to root out corruption and restructure complex state institutions overnight. It needs time. And the leadership and institutional capacity of the CNRP are not yet up to the task.
The CNRP needs to put much more effort into building up its leadership capacity and management structures, especially at the local level. It also needs to strengthen democratic and transparent decision-making processes within the party and enhance the central–local relationship.
So, what does the future hold for the CNRP?
There are at least three scenarios for the future development of the CNRP. First, if the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights Party factions can maintain a united approach, the CNRP will be able to pursue its agenda of national rescue mission and nation building more effectively. And, if it performs well in the legislature and other independent state institutions, it has the chance of garnering popularity and expanding its political power base in time for the next election.
Second, the internal unity of the party might face severe pressure as long as the Human Rights Party and Sam Rainsy Party factions are active. Imbalanced and competitive power-sharing arrangements could implode the party. It must also deal with the different demands of relevant interest groups.
Third, although the popularity of the CNRP has increased since the last election, it must now prove that it can be an effective leader — this will determine its future. If it fails to deliver on expected results then it will lose public support and confidence.
The majority of CNRP voters at the last election expressed their dissatisfaction with the performance of the CPP, who have enjoyed largely unobstructed rule over Cambodia for more than two decades. Voters wish to see a stronger role for the opposition and more effective checks and balances on the CPP’s power.
Fighting corruption, providing decent wages for factory workers and resolving chronic and widespread land disputes are the most urgent tasks. The CNRP alone cannot address these structural complexities. It requires a close working relationship and partnership with the ruling CPP, development partners, civil society groups and private corporations. The ruling CPP, however, will have more to gain politically from achieving these reforms. CPP executives are more prominent in the eyes of the general public. But the opposition CNRP, through the national assembly, will also get some credit for its efforts in shaping the path to reform.
At the same time, significant steps need to be taken by the ruling CPP to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the party. These steps include changing the party leadership, revitalising public institutions and improving public communication — especially at the grassroots level. CPP members are already taking steps to present themselves differently — such as not showcasing their wealth and opulent lifestyle when travelling to meet the masses, especially in rural areas. Another important step for the CPP will be to promote capable and promising young leaders, giving them more responsibility within the party.
But what if efforts to implement reform fail to produce results?
If the situation does not improve and reform efforts do not produce good results, the opposition will then have a high chance of winning the next election — as long as the CNRP is able to blame the ruling CPP. What ‘good results’ are will be determined by citizens’ demands and expectations.
It is more likely, however, that both the CPP and CNRP will be blamed for failed efforts at reform. Their political support bases would shrink. And, in such a scenario, small parties (especially the FUNCINPEC party and other emerging political parties) are likely to have a greater opportunity to win parliamentary seats in the next election. This would also increase the likelihood of a coalition government in the future.
Change is urgently needed. Cambodia’s political outlook will depend on the ability of the CPP and CNRP to cooperate and bring structural reform to the nation. The ideal scenario would be both the CPP and CNRP working together — developing effective checks and balances, strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting inclusive, sustainable and rights-based development and improving the justice system.
Vannarith Chheang is a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
This article first appeared in the east Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.