Over the last decade, a remarkable political transformation has been taking place in many Southeast Asian countries, from mainland states like Burma and Thailand to maritime states like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The power of the old political establishments has been declining or contested by the emergence of powerful challenging forces. The decline of the old institutions is commonly attributed to some of the following conditions–domestic socio-economic and demographic change, the emergence and expansion of the middle-class, the governments’ longheld grip on power, and the tactics of the challenging forces using new modes of communication such as mobile phones and social media.

Cambodia’s old political establishment is now joining this regional trend. The previously unchallengeable power of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving prime minister, is now being fiercely contested leading to a new set of questions about the country’s political future. The unofficial result of the recent July 2013 national election shows Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) falling from 90 in the 2008 election of the parliament’s 123 seats to 68 in this election and the surge of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a merging of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party in 2012, from 29 to 55. Furthermore, the opposition party claims the number of seats would have been higher had there not been election irregularities.

This is the first time since the 1993 national election that the ruling party’s seats dropped and the opposition party’s rose.

What is more remarkable is (based on the unofficial result), CNRP managed to perform well in CPP’s rural strongholds; leading the CPP in at least three populous provinces and falling just behind it in others. And this shift in political allegiance prompted local and international observers to ask the big question–why?

While many analysts attribute CPP’s decline and CNRP’s rising popularity to demographic change, the role of social media and other factors (including the ruling party’s abuse of human rights and its lack of a determination to fight corruption and social injustice), my perspective emphasizes two factors–the people’s desire to improve their livelihoods and CNRP’s innovative election campaign policy targeting household income. I do not deny the significance of the broader above-mentioned factors, but see them as playing a secondary role and appealing to a small segment of the population, limited to urban areas only. Those factors, i.e., demography, social media, corruption and injustice cannot explain why people in rural areas, previously strong supporters of the ruling party, shifted their allegiance to the opposition party.

Cambodian people’s desire to improve livelihoods

The maintaining of peace, political stability and development by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party over the last two decades has attracted foreign investment and tourists, and thus led to the emergence and expansion of the rich and the middle-class residing in cities and towns and an increasing number of young rural folks migrating to urban areas in search of jobs and opportunities.

From the beginning of his fourth mandate of 2008, Hun Sen, with the financial backing of tycoons and Chinese loans, has focused on developing public infrastructure especially roads and bridges linking cities with provinces and towns with villages. The improved extensive road networks have increased the intensity and frequency of rural-urban/ village-town interaction, thus changing rural people’s perspectives on life and their relations with the state.

Because Cambodia’s civil war over two decades prevented the construction and restoration of roads and bridges, rural life was usually isolated with limited connections to cities. The road networks coupled with private bus companies offer daily transportation between Phnom Penh and provinces have reduced travelling time from days and weeks to hours. When rural people travel to cities and towns, they see new cars, motorbikes, beautiful houses and the luxurious items of the rich and the middle-class urban dwellers. This prompts them to reflect on their poor village life, and kindles a desire to connect to any source of power that promises them opportunities for livelihood improvement.

To some, being poor is no longer acceptable as part of their karma from a previous life based on the Buddhist notion or the normality of rural village life. So when the CNRP offers them a more promising livelihood options than that of the ruling party, they are ready to shift their political allegiance. Now having glimpsed new life possibilities through improved road networks, voters want more. It looks like Hun Sen’s CPP has become a victim of its own success.

CNRP’s policy of increasing household income

For the first time in the July 2013 national election, the opposition party offered a policy that promised to increase family household income. In previous elections, their campaign policies focused more on promoting democracy, fighting corruption, building independent judiciary and state institutions and dealing with illegal Vietnamese migrants. These policies appealed to urban dwellers and the circle of Cambodian educated and nationalist elites, while the majority of ordinary people especially those in rural areas could not grasp these concepts and could not work out the direct relationship between these big ideas and their everyday lives. In previous elections, the opposition party promised, vaguely, to improve people’s livelihoods.

In this latest election, the CNRP offered policy supporting household income in clear numbers. They promised that if they won the election, the CNRP-led government will offer US$10 a month to people over the age of 65 as part of the government’s welfare scheme, a minimum wage of US$ 150 a month to workers in the garment and shoe industry, a minimum monthly salary of US$ 250 to public servants, and an increase in salary to personnel in the police and the military.

This promise of aggressive increase in family household income appealed to both urban and rural dwellers and to voters of all age groups and has significantly boosted CNRP’s popularity among voters. Under the current Hun Sen government, garment factory workers receive a monthly minimum wage of more than US$70 and ordinary public servants receive their monthly salary of less than US$100. These monthly wage and salary rates do not satisfy many workers and ordinary public servants because they are insufficient against the rising cost of living and do not support their new life aspirations.

So it is the magic of the numbers 10, 150, and 250 that has enabled the CNRP to penetrate CPP’s rural power base and increase its popularity in urban areas. The garment and shoe industry employs more than 350,000 young workers, many of whom come from rural areas and send small amounts of money to their parents back home in villages. It is almost impossible to imagine that their parents, siblings, grandparents, and relatives in extended families back home were not happy with the prospect of a monthly wage increase.

Unlike western families in which members hold different bank accounts, Cambodian families pool money for the common use of the family. Therefore, an increase in income for one member contributes to an increase in the entire family household income. So when many of these 350,000 workers combined with approximately 200,000 public servants influenced their family members to vote for the party that promised them an increase in salary, we see a huge surge in the number of people casting votes for the opposition party.

The US$10 a month welfare scheme is attractive to old people especially those in rural areas and has provided another route for the CNRP to penetrate rural family and village life. In Cambodian society, old people command respect and hold moral authority in both the families and the villages. Their influence on others in their families and villages to vote for the opposition party cannot be underestimated. It is not clear whether the CNRP’s campaign strategists had prior knowledge of the implications of their welfare scheme and wage increase policy in regards to Cambodian family’s household income management and village’s social structure.

The opposition party had difficulty spreading its message since the ruling party holds a tight grip over most local media outlets. Nevertheless, its ideas managed to reach rural areas through rumour and word of mouth. Cambodian rural social communities are held together by ceremonies and religious rituals. People gather together and help each other during weddings, funerals, housewarming ceremonies etc. And it is hard to imagine that people did not pass on and discuss the new income-improving policies.

So I do not see demographic change, social media, allegations of the ruling party’s abuse of power and human rights as the main factors driving the country’s recent political transformation as many analysts have suggested. This notion of people’s grievance that has turned many voters from CPP to CNRP is just secondary.

What has actually given popularity to the CNRP in both urban and rural areas is the intersection between people’s desire to improve their livelihoods and CNRP’s magic numbers 10, 150, and 250 that people can relate to easily. Rural people voted for CPP in previous elections mainly because they saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s offer of peace and building roads as benefiting their daily lives. But once peace and extensive road networks were in place, people start to ask what else can his government offer and they are ready to shift their vote to any party which can respond to their new aspirations.

Kimly Ngoun is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at The Australian National University.