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Background Brief Cambodia and Malaysia: Comparing Electoral Outcomes Carlyle A. Thayer August 21, 2013

[client name deleted] - What in your assessment are the most important similarities between the outcome of the elections in Malaysia and Cambodia? ANSWER: The most striking similarity is that the long ruling parties in both countries suffered their worst set back in terms of popular vote. Both lost their two-thirds majority and thus their ability to amend the Constitution. The opposition in both countries, the Pakatan Rakyat in Malaysia and the Cambodia National Rescue Part (CNRP) , were multiparty coalitions; three parties in the case of Malaysia and two parties in the case of Cambodia. A further parallel might be the charismatic or populist character of the two opposition leaders, Anwar Ibrahim and Sam Rainsy. Finally, the opposition in both countries raised serious charges of electoral fraud. - What in your assessment are the most important differences between the electorates, and the main political parties (or coalitions) in the two countries? ANSWER: Cambodia is overwhelmingly Khmer in ethnic composition. Malaysia is divided into three major ethnic groups, Malays (50.4%), Chinese (23/7%) and Indians (7.1%).1 Up until recent years national politics in Malaysia has always been communal. In the past a majority of Malays supported the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) while a minority supported Parti Islam se-Malaysia (or PanMalaysian Islamic Party or PAS), a Muslim party. In the past two national elections the Malay urban electorate has been split. Some Malays who traditionally supported UMNO have defected and joined Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party and joined in coalition with the more fundamentally aligned Malay Muslims in PAS and ethnic Chinese in the Democratic Acton Party (DAP). In the last two Malaysian general elections large sections of the Chinese community shifted their support to the Pakatan Rakyat, and the DAP in particular because of the pro-Malay policies of the government and some racial baiting by Malay politicians. The only ethnic issue of significance in Cambodia is the political status of the Vietnamese community. Also, urban Khmers have thrown their support behind the CNRP in a manner paralleling urban Malays and Chinese shifting to the opposition coalition.
1

Indigenous people total 11% and others 7.8%.

2 The ruling party, the Barisan Nasional (National Front) is an amalgam of thirteen political parties, at its core are three parties that have traditionally represented each of the major ethnic groups: the United Malays National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Initially Cambodia flirted with a coalition government but eventually evolved into a one party system under the Cambodian People’s Party. The BN has changed its party leader several times since it has been in office. In contrast, Hun Sen has ruled supreme in Cambodia. The communal nature of Malaysian politics has always made the core three-party alliance – UMNO- MCA and MIC – especially sensitive to ethnic outbidding. That is, the opposition Chinese and Muslim parties attempt to outbid the government in offering their communal constituency special treatment or entitlements. In Cambodia the opposition leader Sam Rainsy has resorted on occasion to race baiting against the ethnic Vietnamese community. - Does either the CNRP in Cambodia or BN [sic] in Malaysia have enough leverage going into a new mandate to push the ruling party to reform? ANSWER: The BN is the ruling party in Malaysia. It is reactive to popular pressure, such as suspending the internal security act. Even though the allocation of seats is skewed in favour of the countryside and thus pro-government Malays, and the government has the advantages of incumbency, the conduct of the elections is basically free and fair under the law. The Malaysian judiciary is relatively professional and independent. The government coalition will participate in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate. It is able to adjust its policies in order to retain popular support. For example, the current government must work on adopting policies to lure back Chinese voters. The opposition in Malaysia has long experience being in a minority and conducting itself as the ‘loyal opposition’ in a parliamentary democracy. This is not the case with Cambodia. Only time will tell if the coalition CNRP can maintain unity as it faces a day by day parliamentary battle with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. - Which opposition movement has a higher change of long-term success, and victory in the next election? ANSWER: One difference between Malaysia and Cambodia that must be mentioned is that opposition parties have won and governed in Malaysia’s states. This is not the case in Cambodia. In other words, the PAS is able to win government in the conservative Malay northern provinces where its base is located. The PAS cannot aspire on its own to win national government. Chinese opposition parties have also won state government. Controlling state government is a kind of safety valve for Malaysia’s system of government. In the cases of Malaysia and Cambodia both opposition coalitions face formidable problems in remaining unified while in opposition over the next five years. The current opposition in Malaysia is likely to fracture as Anwar Ibrahim fades from the political scene. The case of Cambodia is perhaps more promising. Electoral trends since 1993 have witnesed a shift from royalists to secularists and to favour youth. Cambodia’s two political opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, are likely to retain their popular standing with the electorate. My bottom line is that the opposition in Cambodia has a marginally

3 better chance of gaining power than the opposition in Malaysia. If ten days are a long time in politics, five years will be an eternity. - How do you assess the ruling parties in each country will respond to what may have been a loss, and was certainly a call for change from voters in each country? ANSWER: UMNO has experienced ups and downs in terms of the percentage of vote it has received in national elections since 1974. It therefore has the experience of being introspective and self-critical. In other words, UMNO has the capacity to reinvent itself by changing its leader during his term in office or even conducting a major cabinet reshuffle. UMNO today does not come under the leadership of a political strongman like Hun Sen in Cambodia. Its branches are capable of generating proposals for change and at national level UMNO is capable of altering its policies to attract popular support. There are signs that elements within the CPP are willing to engage ina post-mortem on their set back in the recent elections. But the CPP appears less likely to jettison Hun Sen. His basis of power is different than Najib’s in Malaysia. Hun Sen dominates the CPP, Najib Tun Razak is responsible to UMNO.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia and Malaysia: Comparing Electoral Outcomes ,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 21, 2013. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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