Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party remains firmly in power following Sunday's elections, but with a substantially reduced majority.
With an officially announced 68 seats won to the opposition's 55, the Government has a comfortable working majority. Nevertheless, the contrast with the previous parliament is striking. Previously, the CPP held 90 seats to 29 for the parties forming the opposition, with minor parties holding the balance of seats. Importantly, the reduced number of CPP seats means that Hun Sen's party will not, as was previously the case, be able to amend the constitution, since a two-thirds majority is required to do this under the constitution.
Early analysis of the results confirms trends that have been apparent for some time. Hun Sen and the CPP retain support in Cambodia's rural areas while the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party had its most important support in Phnom Penh and among younger voters. These are trends likely to continue in the future as Cambodia's demographic profile is overwhelmingly weighted towards a cohort under 30 years of age. There have already been suggestions that social media played an important part in the opposition's surge, but it is still too early to make a judgment on this issue.
Will the election results make any difference to the nature of Cambodia's politics and governance in a country beset by corruption and nepotism? And will the return of Sam Rainsy to play a role as the opposition's leading spokesman, even though he was barred from standing for election, alter the balance of political forces?
The most likely answer to the first question is that nothing much will change in the short run. While external commentators are largely united in condemning the way Cambodia has been governed, the simple fact is that, as the party in power, the CPP remains in control of the forces of order and the public service. It is unlikely readily to cede control of these levers of power. There are likely to be a series of allegations of electoral fraud but it is unlikely these claims will lead to changes in the election results.
The return of Sam Rainsy to play an active role within Cambodia is likely to have an effect on the country's politics, particularly because of the support he has received from international critics of Hun Sen's regime. The fact that he was allowed to return to Cambodia with a royal pardon was a reflection of external pressure, particularly from the US and the EU. He is active, courageous and intelligent. But he, no less than other Cambodian politicians, has authoritarian tendencies and a notable readiness to indulge in vehement anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. In short, his foreign backers may find him a flawed vessel into which to pour their hopes.
It is too early to say that yesterday's elections represent a turning point in Cambodia's contemporary political history. But it may not be too early to suggest that the apparent emergence of an identifiable urban and youth vote will be of major importance when the next election is held.