Phnom Penh, Cambodia – After three months of protests following disputed elections in Cambodia, opposition leader Sam Rainsy shows no sign of fatigue.
Returning to his party’s headquarters after leading thousands of people on a six-hour march through the streets of Phnom Penh, the capital, Rainsy insists that the supporters of his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) aren’t tired either.
“The popular support is still there,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview. “The people continue to demand justice. They want an independent and transparent investigation into the last election, given the number of serious irregularities that must have distorted or even overturned the will of the people.”
Three months after the polls that returned the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to power, there have been few concessions to compromise over the disputed result. The CPP, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has largely ignored the opposition’s protests. It convened parliament alone after Rainsy’s CNRP boycotted the session, calling for an independent enquiry and reforming key institutions. Despite making some vague offers, the CPP has shown little willingness to accept any of the opposition’s demands.
“This was a razor-thin victory for the ruling party,” said Laura Thornton, senior director of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which exposed serious flaws in the electoral rolls in an audit published four months before the election. “We are kind of at a crossroads. The government can go ahead in the direction of reform, embracing a more transparent society and changing the way business and government is conducted, or not. That’s the path of repression.”
Under Cambodia’s system of proportional representation, the CPP secured 68 seats and the CNRP 55 seats in the election. In the previous parliament, the CPP and CNRP had 88 seats and 35 seats, respectively. But in terms of the popular vote, the result was much closer, with 3.2 million votes going to the incumbent CPP and 2.9 million to the CNRP. For their part, the CNRP says they ought to be entitled to 63 seats instead of 55.
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The opposition won widespread support in the capital as well as from young people – more than half of Cambodia’s 15 million people are under the age of 25 – with its promises to create jobs, help the poor and end land grabs that have triggered anger amid rapid economic growth. Others simply yearned for a change in government after three decades under Hun Sen, who first became prime minister in 1985 and has established a reputation as a ruthless political operator.
The discontent has even reached the country’s Buddhist monks, who have traditionally provided spiritual and moral guidance to a nation still recovering from decades of conflict and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.
Such is the depth of discontent that many younger monks say they can no longer stay out of the country’s politics, as their elders demand. Seang Soveannara joined the monastery at the age of 13 so he could get an education. Now 33, he is the abbot of the Samaki Rainsey Pagoda in Phnom Penh, a temple renowned as a refuge for ethnic Khmer Krom from neighbouring Vietnam. Seang has played an active role in all the rallies held by the opposition since the July vote.
His reasons are simple. “We live on the food of the people,” he said. “It’s only right that we help them.”
The burgundy-robed monk, whose fingers are inked with tiny tattoos to ward off evil and protect him from violence, isn’t deterred by threats from the chief monk, a man long seen as sympathetic to the ruling party. Nor are the other monks who chant prayers alongside their abbot every day.
“I have received many warnings from the chief monk – letters, phone calls, reports – but I’m not bothered by them,” he said. “It’s a normal thing for me. I don’t worry about it because I love my country and my nation, so I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing.”
CPP officials say they won fair and square and are entitled to form a government, even if the opposition chooses not to take its seats in the National Assembly. The party has even drafted a $3.5bn national budget for 2014, some 13 percent higher than the amount laid out in this year’s spending plan.
“There is no political deadlock in Cambodia,” said Yeap, who first won a seat in parliament in 1981. “The constitution stipulates that when a party receives more than 50 percent of the vote, that party can organise the inauguration of the National Assembly and can form the next Royal Government of Cambodia.”
There has been some negotiation. In September Hun Sen met Rainsy, a former finance minister turned bitter political rival who spent four years in exile before his return to Cambodia two weeks before the election. But early optimism soon disintegrated as negotiations floundered over the extent of National Election Committee reform, and neither side seemed willing to give ground.
Civil society groups that have followed Cambodia’s post-conflict democratic development are collating their own report on the election – independent of both parties – which they plan to release next month before a December forum on electoral reform proposed by the CPP.
They are calling for what they describe as “major” changes, including the dismantling of the National Election Committee as a department within the Ministry of the Interior, the re-writing of the country’s electoral laws, and reviewing the process of electoral registration.
Rainsy says he is still open to negotiations, but is prepared to organise protests outside the capital in the rural communities home to much of the country’s population.
He remains hopeful. “This country has changed dramatically,” he said. “It’s the result of social media and the fact that the Cambodian people are young. They have reached working age but they can’t find jobs, and they are frustrated. They are much more informed than before. They can co-ordinate and mobilise. Anything can happen now.”