An end to Cambodia’s yearlong political stalemate may be in sight after opposition leaders agreed to end their boycott of parliament on Tuesday. The deal reached between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy hinged on a pledge of electoral reform — notably a rehaul of the national electoral commission which, in the opposition’s eyes, has long been biased in the government’s favor, and a greater role for Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in parliament.
The thaw comes a few days before the one-year anniversary of the legislative elections held on July 28, 2013 that drove Phnom Penh into a standstill. Rainsy – then in exile – and his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) protested the vote, accusing Sen’s ruling CPP party of election fraud in an unprecedented challenge to the premier’s reign. The CPP contends it won the election fair and square, albeit with its lowest threshold yet, nabbing 68 parliamentary seats to the CNRP’s 55 – a result that reflects growing frustration with Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades and who reportedly wants to rule another twenty or thirty years. Though his regime has long been characterized by political and economic stability, the prime minister is facing growing criticism from various quarters, including Cambodia’s large textile industry: in January, unrest among garment workers culminated in a mass strike – and a subsequent crackdown by security forces, which killed four people.
While the new accord could signal an end to the impasse – and Sen’s violent tactics – the prime minister may have simply run out the clock, exhausting the opposition and most recently having key members arrested on charges ranging from incitement to violence to insurrection. Rainsy himself noted “we didn’t have a choice,” and that the opposition needed to calm a “tense situation.” (Note that hours after the deal announced, the arrested CNRP members were released on bail.)
Sen’s response was more enthusiastic: “It was a success. Now you can applaud.” The Cambodian leader’s confidence comes as little surprise. Sen still wields enormous influence over Cambodia’s military, judiciary and state media despite the emergence of a cohesive opposition. What’s more his autocratic tendencies have drawn little international attention. And while Rainsy may have obtained needed changes in electoral procedure and a greater parliamentary presence for the CNRP, a new election won’t take place until early 2018 – leaving plenty of time for Sen to fall back on old habits.