Election results: Victory (and defeat) for both sides

30 07 2013

On election day, Peace Corps Volunteers all over Cambodia posted on Facebook that their sites felt “quiet” or “still.” Here in Takeo, I used the same words to describe the calm that took over the city on Sunday. However, this silence did not mean that Cambodians had nothing to say. On the contrary, the polls were packed with voters, many of whom indicated they were ready for a change.

The preliminary election results show the ruling party, the CPP, losing 22 of their previous 90 seats in the National Assembly. This shift significantly reduces the gap between the CPP, now with 68 seats, and the largest opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), with 55. International news sources say that the “surprising” results show that the CNRP has “leveled the playing field” and “made a strong showing.” However, based the on the (limited) conversations I’ve had with people since the election, I think many CNRP supporters feel angry or unsatisfied. The gains in the National Assembly do not make up for the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to remain in power for another five years or for the alleged irregularities that took place at polling sites across the country. “The results are fake, and we’re mad,” I was told by a young man I know, who was visibly still upset by the CPP victory when I talked to him late Monday afternoon. “If that’s the number they’re admitting,” said one Twitter user, “imagine what the real result is.”

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

International organizations are not satisfied either, with Transparency International saying that it is “very difficult to proclaim this a free and fair election.” In addition to the complaints leading up to election day, which included highly censored media and difficult voter registration processes, there was a long list of voting day concerns, as well. In some cases, voters would show up to the polls, only to find that someone else had already cast a ballot using their name. Some people’s names were left off the list entirely, while a few of the names on the list supposedly belonged to people who had already died. The other issue that was widely covered was that the ink used to indicate that someone had voted was easily washed off, leaving an opportunity for individuals to vote more than one time.

It was these issues that led to a riot in Phnom Penh’s Mienchey district on Sunday, where two military vehicles were destroyed. There were also reports of violence against ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians at a few polling stations. Overall, though, the violence was contained to a handful of specific areas.

The violence has been limited, and I would guess that it will remain so. Despite the hard feelings, members from both parties can feel as though they achieved some sort of victory this election day. The ruling party continues to hold the Prime Minister position and maintains a majority in the Assembly, while the opposition party gained 26 new seats and clearly demonstrated the people’s desire to change the status quo. The CNRP is challenging the results, but all in all I believe this was the safest outcome for the country.


Change or No Change: Cambodia’s Fifth General Election

27 07 2013

Tomorrow, more than 9 million Cambodians will travel to nearby schools and community centers to cast their ballots in the country’s fifth democratic election. With campaigning banned today, it is the first day of silence in weeks. The roar of political rallies has become so familiar recently that today’s tranquility feels a little like the eerie silence before the storm.

I can’t say with any certainty if there will be a storm, or what it would even look like, but it’s hard not to wonder what the aftermath of the election will be. A Cambodian acquaintance recently told me, “If the CPP wins, the country will go to war. If the opposition party wins, the country will go to war.” Although I believe this to be an overstatement, the election is a significant event for people both locally and internationally.

This year, there are eight registered parties on the ballot, down from 11 in 2008 and 23 in 2003; however, two have been receiving the vast majority of media attention. The first is the Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP, which has won all four previous elections and is the current ruling party. CPP’s Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, is the longest serving leader in all of Asia. On the other side is the largest opposition party, an alliance between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, now called the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

This year’s election has received quite a bit of international attention, with many sources voicing concerns about corruption. Some allege that more than 10 percent of registered voters don’t exist. Others say that the ruling party controls all accessible media. Some have gone as far to say that this year’s elections will be rigged, or worse yet: the least fair in history. I’ve heard firsthand many people complain about how difficult it’s been to register to vote or to move their voting location, which indicates unwieldy bureaucracy if not worse.

However, a local friend of mine recently told me that this year the Cambodian people feel freer than they ever have. He believes technology is the reason. Now, young people have smart phones and computer access, which allow them to explore information they couldn’t reach before. People can share their ideas without consequence, he told me. When I asked if that was the case in the 2008 election, he quickly said it was not. Cambodians, he said, have never felt so free to express their opinions, on both sides of the spectrum. “Because of this, we all understand each other now, even if we don’t agree.” Supporting this sentiment is the fact that this is the least violent campaign season yet.

Another thing that has defined the climate of this election season is the return of Sam Rainsy, the head of the former political party named for him, after four years of self-imposed exile. Rainsy’s return has invigorated the opposition party, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets of major cities as he campaigns across the country. When I asked Cambodian friends and acquaintances if Rainsy’s return would cause people to vote differently, they said no. However, I would guess that it’s given people more energy, maybe even more hope.

After noticing that the Cambodian National Rescue Party campaigners seemed to be more enthusiastic during their rallies, I was told by several people that these campaigners hit the streets shouting their slogan of “Change or no change?” because they are truly excited about their party. Sometimes, I was told, CPP campaigners are paid to attend rallies, and some will do so even if on election day they vote for the opposition. The fear of saying no, when paired with the extra income, is enough motivation for some to join these events, but maybe not enough to feign enthusiasm.

Genuine supporters of the CPP do exist in large number though, and they hold up economic growth and infrastructure development as the biggest successes of the party. These are thanks in part to Cambodia’s strong relationship with China, which has invested nearly $10 billion into the small country. Some argue that development has come at a high cost, with land grabs and deforestation being cited often.

In addition to touting development,  the CPP has historically also relied heavily on the message that they freed Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. This message becomes less and less powerful with each passing year, as a greater number of voters have no memory – and little knowledge – of the atrocities that occurred during that time. In fact, the youth movement has been notable this election season, with one-third of voters between the ages of 18 and 30.

Tomorrow, the eyes of many will be on Cambodia. Some have already written it off, arguing that there’s no chance of a free and fair election; but for many more, tomorrow’s election will be a litmus test to see if the Cambodian people are ready for change.

Stay tuned for the results.


Madame Secretary

13 07 2012

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a meet and greet with embassy staff and Peace Corps Volunteers at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. My name was drawn to get to attend the event so I made the long bus ride in yesterday.



Regardless of political views, Hillary is an important figure in current politics – and a role model for many working women in the United States. It was an honor to hear her remarks. EDIT: Watch the following video to see Hillary encourage audience members to “keep focused on the people of Cambodia.”


Steering Clear of Politics

2 06 2012

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are supposed to steer clear of Cambodian politics completely but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there has been a flare-up in political demonstrations and violence recently, but this weekend also marks two important political events.

10,001 days and counting

First, Friday was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 10,000th day in power. That’s more than 27 years, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math. Wikipedia has Hun Sen listed as number seven on a list of longest-ruling leaders currently in office. The New York Times took notice of this landmark date and published a condemning opinion piece.

This weekend local elections are also taking place. The campaign season here is, thankfully, much shorter than that in the United States. For about three weeks, the major political parties have been campaigning tirelessly by attaching loudspeakers to trucks, motos and centrally-located buildings. Although we’ve been told there’s no reason to expect any violence, the government has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol this weekend, just in case. Because, after all, alcohol, and not injustice, fuels political unrest.


Protests in Cambodia

9 05 2012

I have to admit it: I was wrong. A few months ago, I wrote a post, in which I speculated that the likelihood of Cambodians to actively protest would be low. I said:

“Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.”

However, as of late, land and labor protests have been at the center of national (and international) news. Unfortunately, many of these protests have ended in violence. In February, for example, thousands of garment workers had gathered to demand better pay and working conditions when the governor fired into a crowd, wounding three women.

Then, last month, a prominent environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was shot and killed by a government official while attempting to expose the dangers of the widespread illegal logging industry.

The late environmental activist, Chut Wutty

The most recent demonstration has been land grab protest  in Phnom Penh. One day last week, a group of women made a radical statement by stripping down to just their underwear in front of the National Assembly. Then, the following day, five women were injured by riot police.

So it appears the spirit of protest does exist in Cambodia, despite the risks. In an age when one lone fruit seller or a single tweet can change the political landscape of an entire region, it’s hard to know if these protests will be the catalyst for any bigger movements. Either way, I think the protests– and the subsequent responses– provide an interesting look into current Cambodia. It certainly is a country ripe for change.


The Floods

12 10 2011

Since mentioning the flooding in Siem Reap in the post about or site visit, the flooding in Siem Reap (and much of Southeast Asia) has gotten worse. Siem Reap town has been flooded three times, forcing Peace Corps to evacuate its volunteers there. On our way to site from Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap appeared even more swollen than during our previous trip. Houses that had before been islands in the water were now up to their windows and roofs. At site, things have been pretty quiet – despite the swollen rivers, the town has not flooded since we’ve been here. Teachers at my school told me a day or two after our site visit, the national highway was flooded over, temporarily closing the route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Since arriving here, the monsoon rains have generally followed their usual pattern: clouds rolling in at two or three in the afternoon with no more than a couple hours worth of rain. Last night and this morning have been an exception to that usually predictable rule. It stormed all night with harder than usual rains, and it continues to rain off and on this morning. With all this additional rain, I can only assume that the flooding in Siem Reap town will get even worse.

Thus far the floods have killed 207 people and caused an estimated $100 million in damages in Cambodia alone. Today the government lowered its forecast of GDP growth from 7 % to 6%, citing the agricultural damage done by the flooding. Although the international news has been reporting on some of the flooding (primarily in Thailand), it seems like most of it is being overlooked. The Prime Minister of Cambodia has not yet asked for international support, but is being pressured to do so by lawmakers and NGOs in-country. It is unclear exactly what the government will do but many NGOs are already working in the flood-affected areas.


The future of the Argentine economy

23 08 2010

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I attended a seminar on the Argentine economy entitled “La economía argentina en un mundo a dos velocidades.” It was a brief lecture at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires led by Andrés Borenstein, an Economic Officer in the British Embassy in Argentina. A self-proclaimed optimist about the future of Argentina, Borenstein began the event by introducing the current state of the country. As the world begins to either pick itself up out of a global recession or, depending on your viewpoint, brace itself for the dreaded double-dip, where does Argentina fall?

The recession, which was truly devastating in many places, has until this point only had a moderate impact on much of Latin America, including Argentina. One reason for this is that Argentina has a fairly closed economy, leaving it less vulnerable to economic shocks. However, Borenstein pointed to many other reasons that Argentina has been able to survive this economic downturn, including a sufficient amount in reserves, well-regulated banks, flexible exchange rates, low debt and the freedom to implement anti-cyclical policy. (This last one is something I wish he would have expanded on…) Because of these factors, Argentina, a country with a history of economic turbulence, has been able to avoid a crisis that it would not have likely been able to avoid in the past.

In fact, Argentina has actually seen growth in recent fiscal periods. But what is propelling the country’s growth? Some of the answers to this question are predictable across any range of successful countries: expansive fiscal and monetary policy, for example. Others, however, are specific to current social and political events. For instance, Argentina has a special relationship with Brazil, which serves as a constant source of demand for Argentine products.

Furthermore, Argentina is a country with an extensive natural resource base. Although these resources have long provided energy and food to the people living in and around Argentina, currently the demand for two of Argentina’s most abundant products, corn and soy, is soaring, making the fields of the countryside even more valuable from an economic perspective. Although agricultural production can vary significantly from year to year, Argentina saw a good harvest last year, helping to pad the effects of a possible recession. “La cosecha nos salvó otra vez (The harvest saved us again),” Borenstein exclaimed.

Additionally, Borenstein cited as a catalyst of growth, a national program that provides subsidies to families for each child they have. Presumably, this gives families the opportunity to consume at higher levels, thus benefiting the economy.

Based on these important growth elements, the economist believes that Argentina’s economy could prosper in the upcoming months and years. Other reasons he claimed Argentina could advance include its low levels of debt, its large skilled labor force and shrinking levels of poverty. Also, Argentina does not suffer from the debilitating social conflicts that several other developing and emerging societies face.

Of course, not everyone is optimistic about the Argentine economy. A few fundamental economic pieces are not currently in place. Investment levels have been low and capital flight has been high. Inflation too is remarkably high, hovering around 20 percent, while most other Latin American countries (Venezuela not included) see levels closer to 3-7%. Moreover, there’s a large proportion of the population working in the informal market. Plus, the general public has very little confidence in the government, meaning that the moment the exchange rate begins to move, everyone immediately tries to sell their pesos.

These problems should not be ignored. However, in the opinion of Borenstein, they are unlikely to prevent further growth. He claimed that inflation, for instance, while high, is under control and that low investment rates are 1.) more the fault of Western economies than of Argentina and 2.) would possibly increase as Argentina’s economy continues to hold steady.

Based on conversations I had with a couple of Argentines following the seminar, I would also add that the inaccessibility of credit is a barrier for growth in Argentina. Because people generally do not have access to credit to buy a house, for example, or start a business, they spend their income on things like MP3 players, cell phones and other gadgets. For many, high consumption is a way to prove they have risen out of the 2001 crisis, but this money could instead be invested in their homes and their communities to create wealth and grow the economy.

Looking at all the evidence, it’s hard to predict where Argentina’s economy will be in a few years. In order to succeed, the inflation rate needs to fall and well-regulated credit markets need to be opened. Corruption and a lack of accountability are issues that will need to be dealt with to secure foreign direct investment, eliminate capital flight and encourage citizens to trust the system so they do not rush to sell their pesos as soon as the market begins to fluctuate. But, Argentina has an expansive list of material and human resources at its disposal. And, as Borenstein said, “Es más fácil solucionar un problema institucional que un problema de falta de recursos (It’s easier to solve institutional problems than to fix a lack of resources).”