PHNOM PENH -- At first glance, Cambodia's main opposition party had a poor showing in so-called commune elections early this month. The Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, won 30% of the country's 1,646 communes. A deeper look, though, shows that is 12 times more than its total in the previous local elections, in 2012.
Generally, Cambodia is divided into provinces, which are subdivided into districts that are further subdivided into communes.
The final results, released on Sunday, show that Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, won 27% fewer communes than in the previous elections, though it remains the country's leading political force.
The CPP lost to the CNRP in Phnom Penh, once the stronghold of the governing party; in Siem Reap; even in Kampong Cham, Hun Sen's home province.
These ruling party losses underscore how many Cambodians are challenging the long-rock-solid "Hun Sen dynasty," which has lasted for 32 years.
Furthermore, they cast doubt on how much sway the ruling party will have over voters come national elections scheduled for 2018.
Immediately after the polling, Kem Sokha, 64, chief of the CNRP, visited Kampong Cham Province, where the prime minister, 64, was born. There -- a one-hour car ride from Phnom Penh -- the CNRP won 74 communes, 68% of all 109 communes. Its total was more than double the 35 communes that the CPP came away with.
The largest opposition party's crushing victory in what had been a ruling party bastion reflects Hun Sen's declining popularity.
Although Kampong Cham is situated near the capital, many roads remain unpaved. Cars and motorcycles kick up clouds of dust. Homes and trees along roads are thus coated brown. Tiny roadside shops make up the province's main industry. During the day, only children and senior citizens can be seen.
Nary Ok, 45, who sells meat and fish in front of a shanty, voted CNRP for the first time. The woman's eldest daughter, who is 20, works as a barber in Phnom Penh, chased there by the lack of jobs in her hometown. Nary's husband is out of work. She herself earns $150 a month at most, and every last riel goes toward living expenses. Never is anything left over that might find its way into a savings account.
Chasing Sam Rainsy
"I had pinned my hopes on the CPP," she said, "but realized that it would end in vain. I believe the CNRP will bring changes."
Kiev Kimleang, a 50-year-old female farmer, also switched her voting allegiance. Last year, she sent her daughter, 25, to Japan as a technical intern trainee, borrowing $2,500. "There are no job opportunities in Cambodia," she said. "So I had to get my daughter work abroad to make money."
In fact, many young people in this province find their ways to Taiwan, South Korea, China and elsewhere to work as migrant laborers.
These are some of the circumstances being faced by low-income Cambodian voters and help to explain why many of them have given up on the party of Hun Sen.
The CNRP began gaining momentum in the 2013 national elections. It was created just after the 2012 local polls through a merger of the Sam Rainsy Party, led by its highly popular namesake, and the Human Rights Party, headed by Kem Sokha. Rainsy, now 68, a former finance minister, had won over workers in the 2013 national elections by calling for a substantial minimum wage increase.
That Rainsy was able to win the hearts of many voters enraged Hun Sen, who in November 2015 charged the politician with defamation -- effectively rehashing a previous defamation case for which Rainsy had received amnesty.
Hun Sen then went on to repeatedly issue arrest warrants for Rainsy for failing to appear in court and other charges. Rainsy was outside Cambodia at the time and has been unable to return. He has dual citizenship, in Cambodia and France, and has been residing in the European country.
Siding with China
The elections were held on June 4, and even before final results were announced, the strongman had begun making moves to mitigate the threat to his hold on power that he apparently feels. On June 16, the governor of Phnom Penh was removed and Deputy Gov. Khuong Sreng was installed in his place. No explanation was given. According to some Cambodian newspapers, the new governor was in charge of security and responsible for putting down protests that arose in the wake of the 2014 national elections.
This month, the CPP won 48 communes in Phnom Penh; the CNRP won 57. Many voters in the capital are thought to be relatively wealthy. Since they have some money, it was supposed, they were Hun Sen supporters. That the majority did not cast their ballots for the prime minister's party came as a heavy blow.
Notably, the CNRP won by a landslide in the Sen Sok district, where a slew of new homes is said to be heralding the future of Phnom Penh. The big Japanese retailer Aeon and its European peer Makro are building large stores in the middle-class neighborhood. But the story here is similar to the one being told an hour down a dusty road where one woman sells fish in front of a shanty.
Chi Nay Ngeun, 46, runs an eatery in Sen Sok. "I used to support the CPP," the restaurateur said, "but under its regime, our standard of living has not improved at all."
Despite the gloom, the CPP is far from doomed. The party retains large numbers of supporters. While complaining about the slow development of roads and other issues, Siev Keanu, a 70-year-old shop owner, said, "The CPP has the strongest leadership."
Hun Sen came to power in 1985. He is the longest serving prime minister in Southeast Asia. But only recently -- as China stepped up its maritime disputes with other members of Southeast Asia's political bloc -- has Cambodia raised its voice at ASEAN forums.
It is doing so on behalf of China, Hun Sen's economic and political backer.
Divide and conquer
At an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting last July in Vientiane, Laos, the Philippines was pushing for its ASEAN brothers to use their joint statement to mention an international arbitration decision that went against China. But Cambodia refused to allow this (ASEAN is famous for two traits -- acting only after reaching a consensus and never interfering in one another's domestic affairs). In the end, the joint statement made no mention of the tribunal's ruling, which sided with the Philippines in the maritime dispute.
Now, Cambodia, as well as Laos, which is also under Beijing's thumb, essentially have veto authority at ASEAN gatherings.
Cambodia is also indebted to its neighbor and ASEAN partner Vietnam, which helped topple Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1978. At the same time, there have long been ill feelings between the two countries. Yet Hun Sen seems to have some connections to Hanoi, and cross-border economic exchanges have been accelerating. Vietnam Dairy Products (Vinamilk), Vietnam's largest dairy company, and Vietnam Military Telecommunications Group, or Viettel, the country's top telco, have recently ventured into Cambodia.
Were Hun Sen to fall from power as a result of the 2018 national elections, Cambodia's relations with China and Vietnam could sour.
Meanwhile, despite the CNRP's electoral momentum, the opposition party has problems, like the absence of a real leader. CNRP posters for the commune elections, many of which have yet to be taken down, show a photo of Rainsy, who is supposed to have stepped aside as party chief, along with one of Kem Sokha.
The amalgamation of the Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha's Human Rights Party has been anything but monolithic since the beginning. Furthermore, the CPP could embark on a divide and conquer campaign, that centuries' old mainstay of politics. This could already be happening. Kem Sokha late last year began making sympathetic remarks about Hun Sen. There are rumors he and the prime minister are cozying up.