Democracy Lab

A Cambodian Awakening

The Cambodian opposition is flooding the streets. But success depends on whether it can play politics.

Four months ago, Cambodia's political opposition made a strong showing in parliamentary elections -- and now the country's political situation seems to be headed toward a stalemate. On July 28, the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), won 55 seats of a total of 123 -- 26 more than in the last election. Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won just 68, a 22-seat loss from its previous 90. Despite its gains, the opposition's leaders have demanded an independent investigation into the elections, as they believe a fair election would have secured their party more seats. Since Oct. 23, the CNRP has been hosting peaceful demonstrations to protest the election results. The most recent took place on Dec. 10, with CNRP leader Sam Rainsy leading thousands through the streets of Phnom Penh. (In the photo above, a woman distributes lotus flowers, a symbol of peace, to the demonstrators in Phnom Penh.)

For its part, the CPP has shown no willingness to compromise. On Nov. 25, the regime's Interior Minister, Sar Kheang, offered the opposition talks without "preconditions," that is, ruling out the CNRP's demands -- and is proceeding with running the country. Last month, the body passed the country's budget for 2014 without the presence of opposition members in the National Assembly.

What happens from here on out depends on whether Rainsy can convert his party's strong showing -- and the demands of a younger generation of Cambodians -- into the kind of international support that will convince Hun Sen his authoritarian rule has peaked.

Election fraud is nothing new in Cambodia, but Rainsy believes a fair count would have given his party control of Parliament. He might be right. Election fraud is nothing new in Cambodia, but Rainsy believes a fair count would have given his party control of Parliament. He might be right. Several observers have described the July 28 election as even dodgier than usual. "Nearly all of Phnom Penh's communes have voter registration rates in excess of 100 percent," reported the Phnom Penh Post, "with one commune topping the 200 percent mark." According to Transparency International Cambodia, an "unusually high" number (some 500,000) of temporary identity cards that can be used for voting were issued by government officials.

Hun Sen may have held on to a majority in the legislature, but it's clear that his base of support has eroded. The opposition made inroads into the countryside, which had long been Hun Sen's territory. Land concessions to foreign companies -- including some from Vietnam, a country much resented in Cambodia -- is breeding discontent. (Indeed, Vietnamese investment in Cambodia is a frequent target of nationalist, even racist rhetoric from the opposition.) Hun Sen has also lost considerable support from his own party. According to the Economist, an estimated 50 percent of CPP members deserted their party on election day, remarkable considering the nexus between party patronage, government jobs, and business opportunities.

In advance of the election, few people predicted the outcome. Hun Sen has stayed in power for 28 years first by refusing to accept defeat, and later thanks to cheating and patronage. He lost the 1994 United Nations-sponsored election intended to deliver Cambodia from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge era, but forced his way into a coalition, and then seized control in a bloody coup in 1997. Since then, he has staged two widely criticized national elections (in 1998 and 2003) and presided over mounting corruption and a climate of impunity that has let the murders of journalists, human rights defenders, and even his own mistress go unpunished.

Writing in advance of the election, Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that, this time, Hun Sen was popular enough that he wouldn't need to steal the election. Even the opposition concedes that Cambodia's economy has improved under Hun Sen. (The economy grew last year, and before the global economic downturn in 2008, it grew nearly 10 percent every year for a decade.)

In addition to delivering economic growth, Hun Sen controls the media and electoral apparatus -- so what can explain the opposition's electoral gains? For one thing, voters feel that Cambodia's economic benefits go disproportionately to a small coterie of regime cronies. Another explanation is that Cambodia's up-and-coming generation has higher expectations of its government. On my way to the Oct. 23 rally, I gave a lift to three college-age volunteers for the CNRP on a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw that serves as a cheap taxi). These students expressed their opposition to Hun Sen's party in terms of their desire for political rights and responsibility for their own futures. In another instance, in a leafy hotel courtyard, a young hotel manager explained his support for the CNRP by questioning how Thailand, just an hour's flight away, could be so much wealthier and more developed than his own country. More than any particular political view I heard from him and other opposition voters, I was struck by the contrast between their current demeanor and the fear I saw in voters during the 1998 election. This time, I was the one who kept looking around to see who might be listening.

Hun Sen's long-running justification of his authoritarian rule has hinged on lingering fears of renewed genocide -- but this tactic no longer works in a Cambodia where the majority of the population is under 30 years old, too young to remember the 1970s genocide or the Vietnamese occupation that followed. (Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998, and the rest of the party's cadres have either defected to the government or given up the fight. A few surviving octogenarian leaders are on trial at a U.N. tribunal.)

The CNRP's strong showing also brings about a dramatic change for Rainsy. Just weeks before the election, he was in his fourth year of exile in France, avoiding criminal charges he rejects as politically motivated. Then a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, almost certainly designed to give the elections a veneer of legitimacy, allowed him to return.

Shortly before the Oct. 23 demonstration, I met Rainsy for a conversation at CNRP headquarters on the southern outskirts of Phnom Penh. Dressed in a blue dress shirt and dark slacks, the opposition leader cheerfully admitted his surprise at the "new consciousness" he found among Cambodia's voters, especially young people. He was determined, he told me, to keep pressing for an investigation -- not to overturn the results, he insisted, but in order to find the truth. He stressed that he was in no hurry for his party to take its seats in the assembly: "Our leverage is strongest when we are outside parliament."

Afterward, I watched as an estimated 20,000 people rallied in Phnom Penh's Freedom Park, sheltered under awnings set up against a strong mid-day sun, their heads covered by baseball hats or traditional Khmer checkered scarves. Comedians warmed up the crowd and a band played a tune that compared the past two decades of CPP rule to a dirty shirt worn every day. Just before 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha addressed the crowd before leading thousands of their supporters on a march through the streets of the capital to present a petition pressing their demands, bearing 2 million signatures and thumbprints, to the office of the U.N. Human Rights Commission Office. In the past, however, Rainsy has not used his popularity and skill, or damning evidence of Hun Sen's corruption and malfeasance, effectively. According to Peter Sainsbury, a former Phnom Penh Post editor, "Rainsy's problem is that he's a French politician of the intellectual style, not a filthy street fighter like Hun Sen," says Peter Sainsbury, a former journalist in Phnom Penh. "If Rainsy was a right bastard, he could be running Cambodia today." "If Rainsy was a right bastard, he could be running Cambodia today."

For his part, Hun Sen has no intention of giving up power. He has said, on various occasions, that he intends to remain in power until he is 74. (He is now 61.) At the same time, he is grooming his three sons for leadership posts. He has never shown any respect for the democratic stirrings among his people. He responded to the prospect of an Arab Spring-like movement sweeping Cambodia unequivocally: "If anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat those dogs and put them in a cage."

So far, the opposition rallies and the government's low key response have kept things largely peaceful. However, negotiations between the opposition and the ruling party now appear to be at an impasse. One possible outcome is that Hun Sen will wait until the international community accepts the election results as a fait accompli, before crushing any lingering opposition. So far, the United States and various European countries have sent mixed signals, maintaining support for an investigation into the election results but also sending ambassadors to the inaugural session of the National Assembly on Sept. 24. (Washington has also invested in Hun Sen's sons, one of whom was educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and another at the National Defense University in Washington.) Hun Sen must be figuring this into his calculations.

Another possibility is that, much as he has in the past, Rainsy will look abroad for help that is not forthcoming -- before cutting a deal with Hun Sen and his party. That would further disillusion Cambodia's reinvigorated voters, who are unlikely to be satisfied unless Hun Sen makes real concessions, including reforms of the electoral system and measures to stanch corruption and end shady land dealings. The long-running tug of war between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy could give way to violent protests led by aggrieved rural voters and factory workers, among others.

One thing is clear: the July elections have shown a major shift in the expectations of Cambodia's voters. Without a corresponding change of heart among Cambodia's leaders, there is likely to be prolonged stalemate, or worse. 

Omar Havana/Getty Images


Of Silk Purses and Sow's Ears

The Pentagon may dodge the sequester bullet, but the drawdown is real.

If you think the Defense Department deserves a stable budget, there is a silver lining to the budget deal emerging from the negotiations between Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). It is not clear that the deal is done -- one well-informed source I talked to says 50-50 to 60-40 in favor. But if it emerges this week, it will definitely be a short-term fix. That said, it looks like a two-year deal, so calling it "short-term" is a whopping misnomer -- we've been counting temporary budget deals in months, not years, since the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.

News over the transom says the deal might raise the BCA caps for 2014 and 2015 -- or, if it doesn't, it will simply add about $45 billion in funds government-wide in fiscal year 2014 and another $20 billion in fiscal year 2015. For the crowd shilling to "stabilize the Pentagon budget," half of this increase would be enough to avert the fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2015 sequesters that currently loom in mid-January.

Were there to be a sequester, the base defense budget would go down another $20 billion from the $498 billion level it was in the fiscal year 2013 sequester, settling in the mid-$478 billion range. With a two-year deal, it would be roughly frozen, just below $500 billion. (Spoiler alert: If the deal is announced this week, the media will say that the defense budget will be around $520 billion. But this covers the "national defense" budget function, which includes nuclear weapons funds at the Department of Energy, plus a handful of other national security programs, largely at the Department of Homeland Security. The Pentagon itself actually gets about 95 percent of the total.)

So the "good news" is that a budget deal could spare the military having to find an additional $20 billion in budget cuts below the funding level set in the current continuing resolution, which expires Jan. 15. Of course, some will not see it that way, especially some in the services.

For the last few months, the services have been conducting a new round of whining. The sequester, they say, would mean cutting $52 billion out of their budget. (Another spoiler: Watch out for this bouncing baseline problem. In February, the Defense Department asked for $526.6 billion for fiscal year 2014. Needless to say, it has seen nothing like that kind of money. The continuing resolution provided the $498 billion the Pentagon actually ended up with last year. But rhetoric springs eternal. While the Defense Department has lived reasonably well with this lower level of funding, it is still claiming that in fiscal year 2014 it should get the $526.6 billion that was on its wish list.

So, from the Pentagon's perspective, a budget for this year below $500 billion is at least $35 billion in "cuts," and, if there were to be a sequester, a slash of more than $50 billion. But let's get real: $498 billion is a pretty good deal in a world where threats to the United States are low, terror attacks are down, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are basically over.

And the bottom line is, the Pentagon should be happy. The current level of funding is roughly $100 billion above the constant-dollar Cold War average. The underlying reality for the Defense Department is that it needs to make a silk purse out of what they would love to call a sow's ear. They could have done worse; the Wall Street Journal warned Republicans in Congress to resist fixing the sequester, as it was the only way to get spending down. Moreover, in the editorial board's view, "the appropriators and defense hawks exaggerate how severe the cuts are."

The emerging decision to temper the next round of sequester may suggest that the pace of the defense drawdown is slowing, but in truth it will continue at least through the next couple of years, and probably long thereafter. It's quite possible that U.S. forces may be entirely out of Afghanistan next year (unless Hamid Karzai signs off on the bilateral security agreement now pending), and a sharp shift in public attention to such small controversies as the Affordable Care Act, immigration, and, oh yes, the federal budget and the debt ceiling have moved priorities elsewhere. The defense budget will be well below the levels former secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta planned and hoped for. That makes Secretary Chuck Hagel the first, full-drawdown secretary.

A long-term budget agreement is receding in the distance; nobody is going for the Simpson-Bowles or Rivlin-Domenici "big bang" options. This is especially true as the annual budget deficits slide downward with economic recovery and the improved federal revenues that result. Toward the end of the decade, this picture is likely to change, especially as the boomer generation starts to weigh on Medicare and other mandatory spending looms. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget keeps warning of these dark days to come, but nobody in Washington looks that far ahead.

In the short term, political Washington seems to be leaning against having yet another round of budgetary groundhog days like we've seen for the last three years. Republicans, in particular, may have finally decided that they are not on the winning side of such things as the "fiscal cliff" and the "shut down," both of which will be once again on the horizon after the holidays if the Murray-Ryan negotiations fail to produce a deal. And they may not want to play that hand again in the 2014 congressional elections, especially with the deep wellspring of those who hate Obamacare on their side.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department, which always wants more, will be fine with the same level of funding as last year. While the contractors complain, they have actually done very well, even with declining defense budgets. Lockheed Martin's shares have risen 45 percent this year, for example. But the Pentagon will have greater flexibility than it's letting on, as the "base budget" we have been talking about is not the sum total it will receive. Congress is also likely to stuff their holiday stocking with something like $90 billion in funds for the "leftovers" from the war in Afghanistan -- the so-called war budget, or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Since most of that OCO funding is for operations, it ends up going to exactly the same accounts the Pentagon uses for operations in the base budget. So resist those siren songs about military readiness. The Pentagon will have additional space to work with, even at a lower level of funding than they sought.

All told, the budget deal is not so bad for defense, and clearly not as bad as the defense constituency would want us to believe. Time to get on with the job, Mr. Secretary, and plan for the drawdown that is really underway.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images