Cambodia’s local commune elections held earlier this month saw a nearly 90 percent turnout of registered voters, an increase on previous years that was noted by speakers at a recent forum held in Washington organized by the Stimson Center.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party won more than 400 seats out of 1,646, from only 40 in the 2012 elections.
Brian Eyler, the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program director, said it was rare to see such a high turnout in a democracy, which showed that Cambodian’s were eager to exercise their democratic rights.
“I think the result of this commune election shows that change could come in Cambodia in 2018, whether it’s a change in the CPP platform to address economic development more robustly, or whether it’s a change in regime,” he said.
Sophal Ear, associate professor at Occidental College, California, told the meeting via Skype that in terms of fairness, the recent election could still not be compared with the UN-organized vote in 1993, pointing to the arrests of opposition members, activists and rights workers.
Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, said that corruption, land grabs and environmental concerns coupled with high unemployment had led to the high turnout.
He added that he believed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party would do whatever it could to remain in power.
"It would take a lot to remove Hun Sen from power. He has shown and he said himself, he is willing to do what ever is necessary to hold on to power, because he sees himself falling from power as being an equivalence a return to civil war and chaos. And I think he sees himself as an indispensable leader and Cambodia's only hope," he said.
Courtney Weatherby, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, said environmental destruction caused by large-scale development projects such as the plans for an Areng Valley hydropower dam had increased support for the opposition.
“So the CNRP has stood for the last few years to identify these areas where they have a better reputation and have criticized a specific project,” she said.