Sam Rainsy (L) and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands as part of the “culture of dialogue” between Cambodia’s two major parties, marking an end to almost a year of political stalemate and protests.

Reform and not clampdowns the way to win voters’ trust in the lead up to major elections.

Over the next two years Cambodians will have the chance to decide the future direction of their country and policy at both the subnational and national level. 2017 will see commune (sangkat) elections, with national elections the year after.

In the lead up to both votes, two key questions are worth asking.

First, what do the two major parties offer the electorate and their constituents? Second, what areas should these parties reform to maintain their longevity, especially the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as it looks to retain government?

Instead of resorting to violent crackdowns and clampdowns of civil and political liberties, the CPP and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) should maximise their appeal to voters by leveraging decentralisation and deconcentration reforms to create public policy that directly meets the needs of the people rather than a select few business tycoons or elites.

Voters are more likely to be content with and support the party, group, or individual that develops and implements policies that provide jobs, food, housing, security and healthcare. Furthermore, if councillors understand that their positions and livelihoods are at stake thanks to the introduction of competitive democratic local elections, which research suggests they are, then there should be little need to rely on authoritarian controls.

The last elections, in 2013, were marred by allegations of electoral fraud and partiality on the part of the National Election Committee, which has since undergone reforms as part of the ‘culture of dialogue’ between the long-ruling CPP and opposition CNRP.

In spite of CNRP leader Sam Rainsy being stripped of his position in parliament following the issue of an arrest warrant related to an old defamation case, it’s clear the CPP and CNRP will be the main players in the forthcoming elections

Rainsy’s court summons of 16 November 2015 is one of three charges currently levelled against the veteran opposition leader, with the moves judged as politically motivated by members of the CNRP, who feel that the CPP is trying to weaken them before elections.

Against this backdrop, the build-up to the elections, including, unfortunately, the use of violence, has already begun.

In November 2015, two parliamentarians from the CNRP were beaten outside the parliament following a pro-CPP protest asking for the removal of Kem Sokha from his position as vice-president of the National Assembly. Furthermore, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of the likelihood of civil war if the opposition were to win the next election, something flatly denied by the CNRP.

However, violence, be it verbal or physical, actual or prophesised, is unlikely to bring or encourage the national stability that the ruling party claims to protect and cherish. Instead, it engenders discontent, dissatisfaction and resentment.

While caused by a swathe of factors, the impressive showing of the CNRP at the 2013 National Assembly elections should act as a warning to the CPP that around 44 per cent of the voting population are either unhappy or disagree with ruling party policy and governance of the country.

What the CNRP offers the electorate
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was the result of a 2012 merger between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP).

The CNRP has eight major policy points ranging from salary promises, medical care and youth education. Many of these are “populist”. For instance, the CNRP and its predecessors have been very active along the border with Vietnam.

While the party argues that it is publicising Vietnamese encroachments into Cambodian land, which the Phnom Penh government either fails to report or is complicit in, critics and opponents claim that opposition activists are stoking anti-Vietnamese Cambodian nationalism, xenophobia and even outright racism (see here also). However, there are positive signs with a new focus on party discipline and changes in decision-making processes.

Appeals to Cambodia’s vast army of garment factory workers via wage increases are also populist. Policymakers need to tread carefully here. If wages rise too high and too quickly, and Cambodia no longer produces desired profit margins, then companies and owners may shut up shop and find other locations where labour is cheaper and margins more lucrative.

Unlike the CPP, the CNRP lacks a record of governance, making it difficult to judge exactly how it would function in government. The capacities of its leadership and the party’s internal institutional strength are when compared to the CPP, relatively unknown.

Leading expert Chheang Vannarith argues that the opposition has insufficient leadership capacity and institutional strength to govern alone. As such, the CNRP needs to get its house in order instead of wasting time and energy attacking the CPP.

Recent events also point to discontent within the CNRP. In October 2015, former CNRP councillor Ken Kosal rallied villages to prevent Sam Rainsy from entering a pagoda — apparently motivated by Sam Rainsy’s and the CNRP’s failure to deliver on policy promises.

The party also needs to maintain its internal unity. The CNRP’s two pillars do not always see eye-to-eye, including the leadership. CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha has been excluded from political negotiations over Cambodia’s future between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen. The ruling party has capitalised on these internal divisions, playing Sam Rainsy and his deputy leader against each other. The CPP knows that a divided opposition in disarray is less of a credible electoral threat come 2017 and 2018.

What is quickly apparent is that in the event of a CNRP victory at the next National Assembly elections, those in parliament will be unable to govern effectively without the assistance of bureaucrats previously loyal to the CPP. However, the CNRP should not be idle, and the situation isn’t hopeless. The party should focus its attention on its grassroots politics, raise its reputation and standing for good governance and build from there.

What the CPP offers
While not entirely the result of proactive government policy, Cambodia’s economy has grown rapidly. It is undeniable that the CPP has brought a measure of security and development.

However, serious issues remain. These include the poverty rate that, as of 2011, was at around 19.8 per cent according to the United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia (UNDP). This figure compares favourably with 50 per cent in 1992, but work still needs to be done. There is also growing inequality and income disparity.

Furthermore, as Cambodia moves toward becoming a lower-middle income country its receipt of Official Development Assistance (ODA) will decline as it becomes more economically self-sustaining.

There are positive signs. Over recent years, the Cambodian government has implemented a number of economic reforms and initiatives. Chea Serey, the director-general of the National Bank of Cambodia, forecasts that continued economic growth should lift Cambodia into the company of lower-middle income countries in 2016.

Meanwhile, the CPP offers the benefits of incumbency and experience of government, albeit one tarred by instances of corruption, repression and lack of transparency. In the context of Cambodia, incumbency gives the CPP the advantages of access to state largesse, close ties between the party and the state, complex networks of patronage linking the centre to the periphery, and control over the police and the military.

The strength of the party borne out of decades of fighting is also well-known. While Cambodia is often bemoaned for its “poor institutional capacity”, it should be considered that informal ties between the centre and the localities, political elites and business elites are equally relevant when considering the party’s ability to govern and capacity to provide services, development and infrastructure to sub-national units. The CPP’s incumbency means that it is in the strongest position to provide services and successfully implement public policy, including the ongoing decentralisation and deconcentration reforms.

Currently, changes in the CPP reflect less deep structural shifts, and more an appeasement of key figures after the passing of former party president Chea Sim early in 2015. As is the case with the CNRP, more attention needs to be focused on ensuring the accountability and responsiveness of councillors and party officials at the grassroots.

Corruption also remains a major problem. Freedom House argues that the impact of the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) has been limited, with many in the ruling elite abusing their positions for the accumulation of personal gain. Their report also pointed to cases of nepotism. In particular, it highlights how several CPP party members were forced to resign in order to allow the sons of high-ranking party members to take up positions.

Currently, the CPP is in a strong position, though not as strong as after the 2008 national elections when the party swept most of the seats in parliament. However, it now seems unlikely that Cambodians in the age of social media and YouTube are likely to be deterred by threats of violence.

The willingness of millions of Cambodians to vote for the opposition is testament to this, as was the almost year-long political stalemate. Violent crackdowns are unlikely to bring about lasting political solutions.

What role can decentralisation reforms play?
Decentralisation aims to encourage accountability, responsiveness and bring about a genuine devolution of power. Ensuring that party policy and actions reflect the expectations of decentralisation and the needs of constituents should be the overriding priority for Cambodia’s political parties.

Electorate contentment and councillor re-election are more likely if elected councillors, the overwhelming majority of which are affiliated with the CPP, can demonstrate their responsiveness and sensitivity to constituent needs, and concentrate on downward rather than upward accountability

The competitive element of local elections should serve as a yardstick. Working Papers from the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) clearly illustrate that voters are knowledgeable about the expectations of their local commune councillors, as well as the capacity to remove them by popular vote at the next election if they fail to deliver on policy promises.

Fully embracing the decentralisation and deconcentration reforms could benefit the ruling party, discourage abuses of power by its officials and representatives, and force councillors to focus their efforts where it counts – at the grassroots. The competitive local elections could provide a marker to evaluate the responsiveness and accountability of local officials, remove those that are unpopular, and praise and reward those that serve their constituents commendably.

The reforms have seen the capacity of district and provincial levels of government increase, in order to make the processes of service delivery and development projects a smoother project. However, there is general agreement that sub-national authorities don’t have sufficient funds to carry out their functions to the best of their ability.

The fact that sub-national units do not raise revenue through taxes and only receive a small portion of the national budget with which to do their work can create problems. These include a reliance on party or individual patronage, which tends to reinforce a top-down relationship between national and sub-national units, undermining councillors’ accountability to their constituents.

As such, further fiscal decentralisation should be seriously considered so as to provide greater local flexibility in development and infrastructural projects, as well as downward accountability of councillors to constituents.

What does the future hold for Cambodia?
The literature on political party organisation would lead us to believe that thoroughgoing institutional change is rare and potentially destabilising. Instead, it would be more realistic to work for gradual change.

Ideally, Cambodia’s major political parties would work together for the national interest rather than focusing solely on personal party gain. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s recent political past, and more presently with the decline of the “culture of dialogue,” highlights that the staying power of such coalitional-type agreements is limited.

Additionally, a significant percentage of the population are under the age of 30. This demographic lacks the same level of personal and political loyalties to the CPP of older generations.

An example is the forming of new political parties, like the Cambodian Youth Party (CYP), which looks to appeal to and harness the goals and aspirations of a generation of younger Cambodians.

While the CPP and CNRP remain the parties most likely to amass the vast majority of votes, it is these new parties that, if they can establish a core voter base and institutionalise their organisations, may present a future challenge to the up-to-now dominant parties.

Cambodia is changing rapidly and not just thanks to social media. The two country’s two major parties must adapt to this changing society or perhaps lose out to newer parties that do appeal to these new aspirations and desires.

By focusing on the grassroots and decentralisation’s core values of accountability and responsiveness, the CPP and CNRP can help maintain their relevance in Cambodia’s fast-changing political landscape. Additionally, they can show themselves to be more than organisations that benefit only a select few.

Scott Rawlinson received his MA in South East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is currently a Fellow, and Coordinator for Fellows, at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), Phnom Penh. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute.