Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cambodia 2013

Legislative elections were held in Cambodia on July 28, 2013. The lower house of the Cambodian Parliament (សភាតំណាងរាស្ត្រ ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា, Rathasaphea ney Preăh Réachéanachâk Kâmpŭchéa), the National Assembly (រដ្ឋសភាជាតិ; Rotsaphea) has 123 members elected to five-year terms by proportional representation (d’Hondt) in provincial constituencies of one to 18 members. The upper house, the Senate (ព្រឹទ្ធសភានៃព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា, Protsaphea) is made of 61 members, two of which are nominated by the King, two are nominated by the National Assembly and the remaining 57 seats are, similar to the French Senate, elected by an electoral college made up of MPs and commune councillors. The Senate, which is less powerful than the lower house, was created by a constitutional revision in 1999 and the first elections were held in 2006.

Historical context

Cambodia’s history since 1945 has been a tragedy. Destroyed by decades of war, victim of one of the most atrocious genocides in recent history, invaded countless times and caught up in strategic geopolitical calculations of great powers, Cambodia has only slowly lifted itself up from this tragedy. Cambodian history is of particular relevance to its contemporary politics for a variety of reasons – not only is it all quite interesting; many Cambodian politicians have remarkable political longevity and Cambodian politics remained heavily influenced by the country’s political history and its foreign relations.

The Sihanouk ‘monarchy’ (1953-1970)

Cambodia gained full independence from France in November 1953, and its sovereignty was entrenched by the Geneva Accords in July 1954, which ended the First Indochina War. Although Cambodia’s independence was partly the result of an armed struggle by an underground nationalist movement which, like in Laos, was effectively controlled by the Việt Minh (after 1947); the conflict in Cambodia was far less bloody than in Vietnam or Laos. Rather, independence was, in large part, the work of Norodom Sihanouk, the King of Cambodia since 1941. Sihanouk, a central figure of Cambodian politics until his death in 2012, was a shrewd political operator. Originally installed by the French; when the Japanese occupiers assumed full political control of Indochina (previously, they had allowed Vichy France to administer the territory in their stead), Sihanouk remained as the monarch of Japan’s short-lived puppet state. However, he quickly regained French confidence after Japan’s defeat. Facing political instability and a legislature dominated by a party fairly hostile to him, Sihanouk gained the upper hand after 1952/1953 (over the head of rival princes and politicians), kicking off a successful diplomatic campaign for independence.

New regime, new flag – 1 / 7: Flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia (1953-1970, 1993- )

After independence, Cambodian politics were dominated by Sihanouk – who abdicated (in favour of his father) in 1955 to enter active politics, through a big-tent political party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which dominated Cambodian politics until 1970 – although that hid a complex factional conflict between left and right within the state. The Sangkum won the 1955 elections, largely through fraud, intimidation and support from the government, effectively crushing the Democratic Party, the old rival of Sihanouk since the French era, and the left. As Prime Minister, and, later, as ‘chief of state’ of Cambodia (after 1960), Sihanouk was the man who controlled Cambodian politics. Politically, the Sangkum was something a typical party of power – personalist, populist and autocratic. That being said, the Sangkum was not quite Sihanouk’s tool – the party, as a big-tent party of power, included politicians (Sam Sary, Lon Nol etc) who would later conspire against Sihanouk himself.

In domestic politics, Sihanouk largely leaned towards the right. For example, the Sangkum held that social inequalities were legitimized by the Theravada Buddhist idea of karma – poor people who were virtuous and obedient would be reincarnated in a more socially prominent role in their future lives. Sihanouk’s regime cracked down on the leftist opposition, which eventually led the communist opposition to go underground. That being said, he was also able to play both sides off of one another – some prominent leftists, including future Khmer Rouge apparatchik Khieu Samphân, participated in some governments.

The first years after independence were Cambodia’s golden years. Exports of raw materials (largely rice) were high, economic growth was 8% yearly, there were plenty of employment opportunities in the countryside and the cities, most people had enough to eat and foreign aid allowed the country to modernize and build up modern infrastructures, including schools, hospitals, roads or harbours. Foreign aid came from both the western bloc (France and the United States mostly) and the communist bloc (USSR, PR China).

As early as 1954, Sihanouk’s Cambodia began pursuing a non-aligned policy – the country participated in the 1955 Bandung Conference and became a founding member of the non-aligned movement. For a strategically located country like Cambodia in the midst of the Cold War and the beginning of the Vietnam War, however, sitting on the fence was near impossible. Until 1963, Sihanouk maintained fairly amicable relations with the US, although there was mutual suspicions on both sides. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cambodia turned to the US for military aid – eventually, the Khmer armed forces (FARK) became strong bulwarks of anti-communism led by a pro-American officer corp (notably General Lon Nol). However, Sihanouk was rather hostile towards two US allies in the region – Thailand and South Vietnam, two countries with significant Khmer minorities and with a history of territorial disputes (and irredentist designs) with Cambodia. While Sihanouk was trying to have the cake and eat it with the US, he developed much stronger and warmer ties with communist China. The alliance with China was mutually beneficial for both: as a major power, China would, Sihanouk hoped, keep Vietnam and Thailand from acting against his country; for Beijing, having an ally in Cambodia was vital for preventing their encirclement by anti-communist and pro-American regimes. Besides, Sihanouk predicted that the southeast Asian conflict would end, sooner or later, with a communist victory – in this scenario, Cambodia’s interests (and sovereignty) were better served by Hanoi and Beijing than they would by Saigon or Washington.

Relations with Bangkok, Saigon and Washington deteriorated quickly after 1959, when the government uncovered a Thai-South Vietnamese plot to overthrow Sihanouk and replace him with a republic led by veteran right-nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh. Diplomatic relations with Thailand were broken in 1961, those with South Vietnam in 1963. Relations with South Vietnam (and, by consequence, the US) worsened when Sihanouk came on fairly good terms with both the North Vietnamese government and the communist Viêt Cong in South Vietnam – after establishing diplomatic relations with the north in 1963, he turned to the Viêt Cong and the North Vietnamese government to obtain guarantees for Cambodian territorial integrity.

Relations with the US became horrible after 1963 (Sihanouk favourably greeted the news of President Kennedy’s assassination) and ties were finally broken in 1965. Domestically, after 1963, Sihanouk nationalized banks, foreign trade and insurance and state monopolies created; leading to some kind of ‘crony socialism’, widespread corruption and palace intrigues/scandals. Increased air and land incursions by the American military inside Cambodia had become a major issue. Cambodia, with or without Sihanouk’s blessing, served as rear base for the Viêt Cong and the country. After 1965, the Cambodian government opened its main harbour (Sihanoukville) to Soviet and Chinese shipments of arms destined for North Vietnam. Ironically, while Sihanouk’s foreign policy became, after 1963-1965, pretty openly leftist, his domestic policies were far more right-wing, unleashing waves of repression on left-wing and communist activists and clandestine fighters in Cambodia.

Over time, however, Sihanouk began to resent the heavy North Vietnamese/Viêt Cong influence and presence in his country – both parties were using their rear bases in Cambodia, the country was the southern terminus of the Hô Chi Minh trail (which supplied the Viêt Cong with supplies from the north) and Vietnamese presence destabilized the country economically and politically. Sihanouk came to regret the break with the US, while right-wing sectors within the military, business community and ruling party criticized Sihanouk’s policies.

The 1966 elections marked the beginning of the end for Sihanouk’s regime but also the start of a civil war which would truly end only in 1990. The right-wing faction (anti-nationalization and pro-American) of the Sangkum won the elections, forcing Sihanouk to name Lon Nol, a right-wing military officer, as Prime Minister. In some regards, Sihanouk might have shared some of Lon Nol’s hostility towards the Vietnamese, but he remained suspicious and hostile towards his Prime Minister. To counterbalance Lon Nol’s power, he named a “counter government” which he used to control and criticize Lon Nol. In 1967, the government’s decision to stop the illegal sale of rice to the communists by using the military to forcibly collect the harvests at gunpoint led to a peasant revolt in the western rural province of Battambang. In the prince’s absence, but with his blessing, Lon Nol responded by imposing martial law and killing hundreds of peasants. Upon his return in the country, Sihanouk arrested leftist members of his “counter government”, but then also pushed Lon Nol to resign later in 1967.

Between 1967 and 1975, the policies of successive Cambodian governments and – after 1969 – the United States – succeeded in driving thousands of Cambodian peasants from the countryside into the arms of the local communist rebels, which Sihanouk styled the Khmers Rouge (‘Red Khmers’, KR). The Communist Party of Kampuchea (PCK) was founded in 1951, basically as the local section of the hegemonic Vietnamese communi movement. Quickly, the party became divided: a (predominantly urban) faction of the party was pro-Vietnamese, but a more rural and anti-Vietnamese faction progressively developed around a group of intellectuals educated in Paris – Saloth Sâr (Pol Pot) and Ieng Sary became the ‘Paris students’ group’ main leaders. In the 1950s, the Cambodian communists faced a hard time: Sihanouk, as a fairly anti-American leader with support in Hanoi and Beijing, was more legitimate in the eyes of many Cambodians than the South Vietnamese regime was in Vietnam; the government actively persecuted communists; and, in the countryside, the communists’ call for a peasant revolution never took off. Many of the Paris students chose to become teachers in respected lycées in Phnom Penh – their academic work would eventually come to provide with them with a network of young supporters, indoctrinated by their respected professors. Starting in 1960, the Paris students group rose to prominence within the party – Pol Pot became secretary-general in 1962, after the pro-Vietnamese leader disappeared. The break with Vietnam was not sudden, but rather took place over a few years. However, in 1965, after Pol Pot visited North Vietnam, where the communist leadership in Hanoi advised him to stay cautious and play nice with Sihanouk, the break appeared fairly definite. In contrast, the PCK obtained a warmer reception in China, notwithstanding Beijing’s alliance with Sihanouk. The Khmers Rouge launched their armed insurgency (and, by consequence, the civil war) in January 1968.

In 1969, in a turnaround, Sihanouk started denouncing the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and tried patching things up with Washington. In March 1969, the new Nixon administration began ‘Operation Menu’ – the heavy bombing (108,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country), by the USAF, of suspected Vietnamese bases in Cambodian territory. Sihanouk welcomed the bombing campaign – he reestablished diplomatic relations in June 1969, Lon Nol returned as Prime Minister and the government spearheaded violent demonstrations against Vietnamese interests in Cambodia.

The Khmer Republic (1970-1975)

New regime, new flag – 2: Flag of the Khmer Republic (1970-1975)

While Sihanouk was abroad in March 1970, he was overthrown in a coup masterminded by his cousin and dynastic rival, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, and Prime Minister Lon Nol. The CIA had foreknowledge of the coup, but they probably did not stage it themselves – they were content to let their allies in the military and the political right handle that matter. Quickly, the National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office and, in October 1970, the Khmer Republic was proclaimed.

Throughout its short existence, the Khmer Republic’s history was defined by the Cambodian Civil War – which was both a domestic conflict between the government troops and the Khmers Rouge, and part of a broader regional conflict – the Vietnam War – with American, North Vietnamese, Viêt Cong and South Vietnamese participation.

The government, which could fairly accurately be described as an American puppet government, was weakened by a whole variety of factors. Top among those were probably internal clashes, between Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak, and by the weakness of the Cambodian military (FANK) – dogged by poor morale, corrupt leadership and heavy casualties. The FANK and the Khmer Republic’s government were both heavily dependent on American military aid. American and South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops ‘invaded’ Cambodia in April-May 1970 to destroy Vietnamese communist base camps, and save the Lon Nol government from collapse. USAF bombing of Cambodia continued until 1973 – including the earlier Operation Menu (1969-1970), the US dropped 539,129 tonnes of bomb on Cambodia and killed between 40,000 and 150,000 Cambodians. The scale of this bombing far surpassed the American bombings of Japan during World War II.

Map of US bombings in Cambodia (pink dots) – source:

From a strategic standpoint, some have argued that the US bombing served its intended purposes – it allowed the Khmer Republic to survive, it often weakened the communists and eventually led to the North Vietnamese progressively withdrawing from Cambodia. However, the devastating effects of the bombing drove thousands of Cambodians into the Khmers Rouge’s arms. The KR started proving themselves to be vicious, psychopathic murderers in the “liberated zones” after 1972 (random killings, purges of opponents, forced collectivization), but the details of their pre-1975 atrocities were not widely publicized, and, as in any cases of genocide, many citizens doubted that they were dealing with people who would brutally murder their own countrymen for no apparent purposes. Instead, many peasants who had their villages, livelihoods and families destroyed by American bombing and resented the pro-American corrupt, incompetent and venal Lon Nol regime saw the KR as liberators. They were ready to attribute reports of atrocities to the “heat of battle”. Between 1970 and 1975, the KR’s manpower increased from 12-15k to 35-40k.

In exile, Sihanouk formed, in March 1970, the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK) in alliance with the KR. Sihanouk was smart enough to know that he was being used by the KR, but between Lon Nol and the KR, he saw the latter as the lesser evil – and the ones who weren’t the puppets of “American imperialism”. In turn, the Khmers Rouge saw Sihanouk as a useful figurehead for them both domestically and internationally. Domestically, Sihanouk was still revered as a godlike figure by numerous Cambodians, and his alliance with the KR gave them an aura of respectability with many Cambodians who hadn’t cared much for their talk of “peasant revolution” in the 1960s. Internationally, Sihanouk was still held in high regard in several countries and thus gave international respectability to the KR.

The GRUNK was a government-in-exile led by Sihanouk, run out of Beijing, but the real power laid with the KR who were actually in Cambodia. The GRUNK/KR were recognized and supported by the PR China, North Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and other communist countries, although the USSR recognized the GRUNK as Cambodia’s “legitimate government” only in 1973. While North Vietnam backed, fairly obviously, the GRUNK over Lon Nol, relations on the ground between the North Vietnamese and the KR deteriorated after 1972, even if Washington continued to subscribe to the myth of “monolithic communism” and treating the KR as the one and the same as the North Vietnamese and Viêt Cong. In 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords, the KR refused any negotiations or settlement with the Khmer Republic – they would fight until victory. That same year, the end of the American bombing campaign and the US’ slow withdrawal from SE Asia further weakened the FANK and Lon Nol’s government. By 1974, the Khmer Republic government’s authority was limited to Phnom Penh, vital communication routes with South Vietnam and Thailand, and the lowlands around Lake Tonlé Sap. Phnom Penh’s population had swelled to over 2 million (from 600,000) over the course of the conflict, due to an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting and American bombings.

In January 1975, the Khmers Rouge launched their final push for Phnom Penh. They encircled the capital, cutting off fluvial supply routes with South Vietnam. On April 1, Lon Nol fled the country with the cash. On April 17,  Phnom Penh fell and the Khmers Rouge seized power.

“Democratic” Kampuchea and the Khmers Rouge (1975-1979)

New regime, new flag – 3: Flag of the Khmers Rouge’ Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)

The Khmers Rouge subscribed to a radical, hardline definition of communism – it could be seen as Maoism taken to a radical genocidal extreme; however, some aspects of the KR’s ideology was similar to fascism and Nazism. The end result of the four-year reign of the KR was a genocide in which between 1.7 and 2.2 million Cambodians died (either directly or indirectly at the hands of the regime). Certain groups – such as ethnic minorities (the Muslim Cham, the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities were decimated), Buddhist monks, “intellectuals” or anybody tied to the old regime – suffered much more than others, but, in general, the KR were hardly discriminatory in their psychopathic mass-murders.

Those who came to power in April 1975 were largely unknowns. They were referred to as and known as the Angkar (The Organization), but little else was known of them or of the identity of their leaders (for example, that the Angkar was the PCK was only revealed officially in 1977). Pol Pot and his allies preferred to live in secrecy, even after they came to power. Indeed, the new head of state of Democratic Kampuchea (as the country became known) was Prince Sihanouk, until he resigned in April 1976 and was placed under house arrest. However, Sihanouk was only the international facade for the Khmer Rouge government, even as ‘head of state’ (he was virtually prisoner of the KR). Khieu Samphân became President of the Presidium in April 1976, while Pol Pot would serve as Prime Minister (with one short exception) between April 1976 and the fall of the regime in January 1979.

Real political power was held by the Angkar, specifically a small circle of confidantes around Pol Pot, most of them former Paris students from the 1950. This inner circle included Pol Pot, Khieu Samphân, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and the sanguinary ‘butcher’ Ta Mok. Tuol Sleng’s commanding officer was Kang Kek Ieu, known as ‘Douch’.

The core of Khmer Rouge political thought can be summarized around a four main points: the total recreation of society, radical dehumanization, hatred of urban areas and Khmer nationalism.

A key concept in Khmer Rouge ideology was that of “Year Zero”, expressing the need for a ‘recreation’ of Khmer society, literally wiping out the “impure” old culture and traditions and replacing them with a new revolutionary culture built from scratch.  Upon taking power, the new Khmer Rouge government abolished all currency, effectively reverting to barter. All those associated with this “impure” old order needed to be re-educated, or, more often, wiped out. “Intellectuals” – which soon came to be defined as people wearing glasses, Cambodians who had been ‘westernized’ or those who speak foreign languages (such as French and English) – were prime targets. Buddhist monks, associated with religion and, by consequence, the old order, were nearly exterminated.

Another facet of this “Year Zero” obsession was an hatred of urban areas, seen as impure symbols of the old order. Days after the fall of Phnom Penh, the KR ordered the entire city to be forcibly evacuated and the population displaced into the countryside. The government claimed this was a temporary evacuation to protect citizens from an “American bombing”; the reality, which soon became clear, was that the evacuation of the cities was part of their forced collectivization policies – everybody would be forced to work in the fields, to “serve the revolution”. During the evacuation of the capital, the KR emptied hospitals at gunpoint, with those too weak to evacuate being shot. In sweltering heat and inhumane conditions, the evacuation of Phnom Penh claimed the lives of about 10,000 people.

The KR, unlike traditional communist regimes or parties, was very hostile towards urban labour and the embryonic industrial working-classes, largely because they had not offered them support during the civil war years. As a result, the KR, like in Maoist doctrine, placed great emphasis on agriculture and agrarian socialism.

The other major aspect of Khmer Rouge ideology was a total, radical dehumanization of society. Everybody and everything was to be subordinated to the “revolution” and building the new society. Families were separated, and the regime broke up family ties by encouraging children to rebel against their parents (symbols of an old authority). Individuality, in the form of any kind of individual expression or pleasure, was banned and harshly punished. In the fields, the Khmers Rouge’ quasi-slaves ate their meager rations in common. Intermingling, extramarital sex, group entertainment (such as music, poetry etc which was not ‘revolutionary’) was all forbidden and repressed. “Justice” was arbitrary because there was no judicial system. Those who disobeyed and showed the slightest hint of dissent were summarily executed. Similarly, those who were judged to be ‘lazy’, unproductive or who had committed a mistake in their work were also summarily executed.

The KR regime was a far cry from Marxist ‘internationalism’. On the contrary, the KR were chauvinist Khmer nationalists, with a particularly profound hatred for Vietnam and anything Vietnamese. The KR regime sought to reclaim a region of southern Vietnam bordering Cambodia, known as Kampuchea Krom, inhabited by ethnic Khmers (Khmer Krom) and considered by Khmers to be their historical heartland until it was annexed by Annam and granted to South Vietnam by France in 1949. In Cambodia, the Vietnamese minority had faced persecution since 1970 – after the coup, the government had encouraged a massacre of Vietnamese in April 1970. When the KR came to power, they expelled 150,000 Vietnamese in 1975, but by 1976 they barred them from leaving the country and those who remained in Cambodia were subject to arbitrary persecution.

As with so many other sociopathic regimes, another key aspect of the Khmer Rouge regime was the paranoia of the ruling elite. Pol Pot and his henchmen were quick to purge any other Khmer Rouge leader who showed any hints of dissent, rival ambition or disobedience. Beginning even before 1975, KR leaders who disagreed with Pol Pot’s radical anti-Vietnamese, nationalist and dehumanizing ideology were purged from the PCK. After 1975, a number of regional KR leaders who had disagreed with the Angkars policies were killed off. For example, in 1976 and 1977, the KR leadership of the “East Zone” was purged after a coup attempt by a KR military leader. Those who were lucky – like the more ‘moderate’ and pro-Vietnamese Hun Sen and Heng Samrin – managed to flee the country.

The regime’s secret police arrested thousands of individuals, the majority of whom were innocent or whose ‘crimes’ often were little more than stealing or trying to get extra food for themselves. Tuol Sleng, a former girl’s lycée in Phnom Penh, was converted into a prison (or, more accurately, an extermination camp), officially called S-21. Prisoners held at Tuol Sleng were systematically identified, locked up and tortured until they admitted that they were Vietnamese and/or CIA spies. Many prisoners, under torture, admitted to being foreign spies and gave ‘details’ of their ‘plots’. About 15,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng, including a few unlucky foreigners, but it is said that less than 10 people came out alive.

The Lon Nol regime and the civil war was obviously not an era of economic prosperity – far from it. However, “peace” with the KR hardly brought anything better. In line with their objective of transforming the country into a communist society without going through any intermediate stages, the KR had ordered the forced collectivization of agriculture – beginning in the “liberated zones” they controlled prior to 1975. Peasants, many of whom had owned small tracts of land, lost their land and were turned into subhuman slaves, working for the Angkar. The deportation of urban dwellers, followed by their forced migration from one part of the country to another, worsened the situation. Soon, Cambodia faced a generalized famine; the KR in turn used this famine as a coercive tactic on the population. The famine was caused, in good part, by the KR’s policies and their incompetence – the government sought to triple rice production at the expense of other crops, irrigation was deficient, and the government took decisions on harvest calendars (ignoring local environmental conditions). Individuals were provided with meager rations provided by the Angkar, and anyone who sought to get additional food (like picking fruit) could be arrested or executed.

Relations with Vietnam (reunified after the communist victory) were strained from the get-go. The Communist Party of Vietnam had longed sought to play a hegemonic leadership role over Laos and Cambodia. The KR had long sought to escape Vietnamese tuttelage. Right after their victory in April 1975, KR troops had been massed along the Vietnamese border and there were small clashes between both countries in May 1975. Again in May 1977, KR troops attacked Vietnamese villages and killed civilians, although Vietnam did not retaliate. That same year, unlike Laos, Cambodia refused to sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Vietnam.

On the world stage, Cambodia was relatively isolated. The communist bloc was now divided because of the Sino-Soviet split. In southeast Asia, Vietnam sided with the Soviet Union, while the KR aligned with China (even before 1975). Mao and Zhou Enlai’s deaths in 1976 meant that Chinese aid dried up, and Democratic Kampuchea was reliant on a few non-aligned or pro-Chinese communist countries: North Korea, Albania, Yugoslavia or Romania. Relations with the western bloc, the Soviet Union and Thailand were generally strained.

Vietnam allegedly took the decision to invade Democratic Kampuchea in 1977 or early 1978. At the outset, Vietnam’s rationale for invading Cambodia was likely more geopolitical than humanitarian. Relations between Phnom Penh and Hanoi deteriorated further in 1978, with the KR regime stepping up violently anti-Vietnamese propaganda and doubling down on internal purges of ‘suspected Vietnamese agents’ within the ruling elite. In preparation for the invasion, Vietnam sought political support from the Soviet Union.

The Vietnamese invasion began on December 21, 1978. With some 170,000 men to the KR’s 73,000, the Vietnamese military quickly overwhelmed the weak KR defenses and as early as January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops took Phnom Penh. However, the KR government – including Pol Pot and his inner circle – had fled the city in the days leading up to the fall of the capital. Pol Pot vowed to fight “Soviet expansionism” by a return to the KR’s old guerrilla tactics. The KR evacuated Prince Sihanouk out of the country.

People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the second civil war (1979-1991)

New regime, new flag – 4: Flag of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1991)

Democratic Kampuchea was followed by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, a single-party communist regime backed by Vietnam and the USSR. The new government’s ruling elite was formed by former KR cadres who had managed to flee the country: Heng Samrin became President, Hun Sen was in charge of foreign affairs and Chea Sim in charge of internal affairs. Within the new government, there were, at the outset, two factions: the remnants of the anti-colonial and Vietnamese-led Khmers Issarak (many of whom had been living in Vietnam for decades) and KR dissidents. In December 1981, the Khmer Issarak Prime Minister, Pen Sovan, was ousted from office. In 1985, Hun Sen became Prime Minister. The government was widely seen as a Vietnamese puppet state. Indeed, Vietnamese troops – up to 200,000 soldiers – occupied the country until 1989, Vietnamese “expert-advisers” guided government policies and the government/Vietnam encouraged the immigration of about 500,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a morally gray situation. On the one hand, the invasion constituted a gross violation of the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty, which had not yet been challenged by the ideas of humanitarian intervention or R2P. On the other hand, many Cambodians initially welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators from a brutal regime, which was, proportionally, one of the most genocidal regimes in world history.

The Vietnamese invasion did not mark the end of Cambodia’s agony. The KR had fled the capital and conceded control over most of Cambodia to the new pro-Vietnamese government, but they set up camps along the Thai border, from where they would keep fighting until 1998. Once again, Cambodia was the victim of greater power politics between great powers.

Between 1970 and 1975, the United States had strongly supported Lon Nol’s regime against the North Vietnamese and the KR, in the name of anti-communism. After the fall of the Khmer Republic, relations between the US and Democratic Kampuchea had been strained. Some American policymakers, such as Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), had urged the US to welcome the Vietnamese invasion as a ‘liberation’ of the country from the murderous KR regime. However, geopolitical considerations quickly took primacy over humanitarian and moral considerations in Washington. In January 1979, the US was on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations with PR China and Washington was eager to build close relations with Beijing, to counter the ultimate enemy – Moscow (and, by extension, Hanoi). Besides, in 1979, the US still saw Vietnam as the enemy. The United States, followed by Thailand, Great Britain and most western bloc nations, sided with China – and the KR – against Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

In February, China launched a ‘punitive invasion’ of northern Vietnam to punish the Vietnamese for the invasion of Cambodia. Both sides suffered loses and the Chinese withdrew a month later, but China continued to provide material support to the KR inside Cambodia.

The Vietnamese invasion led to a severe humanitarian crisis, which was aggravated by continuing fighting. Vietnamese troops had pillaged the country, and both sides had raided the rice harvests, creating another large famine in the country. Over a million Cambodians attempted to flee the country towards Thailand in 1979, at first being held back by Thai authorities until Thailand opened its borders (for strategic reasons) to Cambodian refugees, settling them in refugee camps on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border.

In addition to the KR, two other anti-Vietnamese rebel groups were founded between 1979 and 1981. In 1979, with Thai and American support, Sihanouk’s former Prime Minister Son Sann formed Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (FLNPK). In 1981, with support from the ASEAN’s member states, Prince Sihanouk created the “National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia” (FUNCINPEC), whose military wing was the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS).

In 1982, Prince Sihanouk took the leadership of a ‘Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea’, which was made up of the KR, FUNCINPEC and the FLNPK. On the world stage, thanks to American and Chinese support, the UN denied recognition to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and continued to recognize the KR’s Democratic Kampuchea as the sole legitimate government of Cambodia.

The United States and Britain preferred to provide material support and funding to the more internationally palatable FUNCINPEC/ANC and FLNPK. However, at the start of the conflict, both of these armed groups were weaker than the KR. The KR, regrouped along the Thai border, received funding and support from China; they received training from the Thai special forces and the British SAS. Thailand had welcomed the thousands of Cambodian refugees and provided strong support for the anti-Vietnamese rebel groups because it too feared Vietnamese expansionism and sought to organize Cambodian anti-Vietnamese rebels to protect itself from Vietnam. In 1985, after Vietnamese attacks on FLNPK and KR bases, the Thai responded militarily. There were several border clashes between Vietnam and Thailand throughout the conflict.

It is slightly unclear whether the United States ever provided funding or support expressly to the KR, but they certainly gave China a blank cheque to do so itself. Humanitarian aid from the Red Cross or the WFP, directed to the refugee camps, was administered by the Thai military. As a result, a lot of this aid, through the Thai military, went to help the KR to get back on their feet.

The KR adapted themselves to the new international dispensation by placing Prince Sihanouk as their international facade (again), and learning to speak Washington’s language of ‘falling dominoes’ to justify its conflict against Vietnam. Pol Pot, albeit still the real leader, was officially reduced to a more secretive role and replaced, for diplomatic purposes, by the more urbane Khieu Samphân. The KRs admitted that there had been a few abuses, and a few thousands had been killed ‘by mistake’, but they never admitted to their mass killings or showed any remorse for their genocide. Not that there was ever any pressure on them to do so. On the ground, the KR continued their reign of terror in the territories they controlled.

The second Cambodian Civil War quickly turned into a bloody war of attrition between both sides (indeed, for the FUNCINPEC and the FLNPK, attribution was what they wanted). During the dry season (November-April), the Vietnamese attacked the rebel camps, oftentimes penetrating into Thai territory. During the rainy season, the rebels attacked Vietnamese positions inside Cambodia. After 1984, the Vietnamese mobilized the population into a vast enterprise of ‘passive defense’ – for 3 to 6 months each year, Cambodian civilians were called upon to build roads, infrastructures, fortifications and protective dikes; there was, furthermore, a 2 – later 5 – year military service in the Cambodian military. A fifth of those called up to work in Vietnamese’ “passive defense” programs died, and the continuing Vietnamese occupation/immigration became increasingly unpopular.

The pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh largely based its legitimacy on denunciations of the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique”. Having uncovered the extent of the KR’s terror, notably at Tuol Sleng prison, the new government and Vietnam used the KR’s genocide as a public relations tool on the world stage. The Vietnamese invasion of 1979 (and ensuing invasion) was now justified on humanitarian grounds, and Moscow was more than happy to use the Cambodian genocide to shame Washington. The Cambodian genocide and the problem of being associated with mass-murderers was a factor which compelled the US to ratify the Genocide Convention in the 1980s, but it did not shame it out of supporting the KR through a Chinese proxy.

By 1986, the conflict had dragged to a stalemate. Because of Vietnamese military superiority, the rebel forces had been unable to gain solid footholds inside Cambodia; however, the Vietnamese were unable to root out the rebels from their camps on either side of the Thai border. Nevertheless, negotiations remained difficult given that the KR never showed a great willingness to dialogue and compromise, while the Vietnamese demanded that the KR be excluded from talks and a future government (a position which was still unacceptable to Sihanouk and Son Sann).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in Moscow was a landmark moment which catalyzed a resolution of the conflict. Gorbachev sought to disengage the USSR from costly foreign entanglements – Cambodia (although it had no troops on the country, a lot of the USSR’s military aid budget was being gobbled up by Hanoi), Afghanistan, Angola or Cuba; he also wanted to normalize relations with China. Vietnam was also exhausted by the Cambodian conflict, and started progressively withdrawing its troops from the country. Negotiations, launched by France and Australia, began in December 1987 with meetings between Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen. The three rebel groups (KR included) and Hun Sen’s government met again in Indonesia in 1988. However, early talks all hit deadlock. The rebels, particularly Sihanouk, demanded that the country change its official name; the Vietnamese remained opposed to KR participation. The US and China wanted an independent, anti-Vietnamese government led by Sihanouk and Son Sann, perhaps with the KR included.

New regime, new flag – 5: Flag of the State of Cambodia (1991-1992)

In April 1989, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea changed its name to the State of Cambodia, and removed references to socialism from the constitution. Human rights, private property, the Buddhist religion and neutrality were inscribed in the constitution. In September 1989, the last Vietnamese troops left the country. Both sides came to agree to the organization of elections, but they disagreed on what kind of interim government should govern the country between a cease-fire and elections. In November 1989, the Australian foreign minister proposed that the country be placed under UN tutelage until the elections.

The KR, with China’s go-ahead, joined negotiations in 1991. In April 1991, all four parties agreed to a cease-fire. In October 1991, they signed the Paris Accords. Under the Paris Accords, Cambodia was placed under UN tutelage – the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) – which had the mission of disarming the belligerents, prepare for elections, supervise the two rival administrations and ensure refugees’ return to Cambodia.

Transition and political consolidation (1992-1999)

UNTAC began its mission in February 1992, with a force of around 17,000 military personnel and 8,000 civilians. The UNTAC had the mission of disarming all belligerents, the KR included. However, the KR didn’t keep their word for long. After their attempt to set up an office for their political wing in Phnom Penh ended in riots fed by Hun Sen, the KR retreated to their rural strongholds and continued their military actions and reign of terror. The KR barred the UNTAC from entering the zones they controlled, and in 1992 they announced that they would not respect the Paris Accords. In 1993, the KR announced that they would boycott the May 1993 election and called on the murder of Vietnamese immigrants.

New regime, new flag – 6: Flag of UNTAC (1992-1993)

The May 1993, against all hopes, turned out well. Prince Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC, led by his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, won 45.5% and 58 seats against 38.2% and 51 seats for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the renamed ex-socialist party which had ruled since 1979. Son Sann’s party took 3.8% and 10 seats, one last seat went to a small monarchist party. In June, after a brief deadlock, Prince Sihanouk mediated the formation of a grand coalition between FUNCINPEC and the CPP, with Norodom Ranariddh as First Prime Minister and Hun Sen as Second Prime Minister. In September 1993, the monarchy was reestablished and Norodom Sihanouk became, once again, King of Cambodia – though he was now a largely ceremonial and symbolic monarch.

The KR having not been disarmed by the UNTAC, they continued their armed struggle in western rural Cambodia. Foreign assistance to their cause having dried up, the KR now funded their rampages through the sell of gemstones and forestry products. Pol Pot remained active in the movement, despite an official ‘retirement’ in the mid-1980s; for example, he is suspected of having ordered the kidnapping and subsequent execution of four foreign tourists in 1994.

Within the government, tensions between the FUNCINPEC and CPP ran high. Both sides wanted to take full power, eliminating the other side. Hun Sen moved to muzzle the opposition and exclude rivals such as Sam Rainsy from politics. The FUNCINPEC was trying to turn the table around, to marginalize the CPP. In 1996, the FUNCINPEC negotiated the surrender of KR leader Ieng Sary and his Pailin faction, in exchange for a ‘royal pardon’ for Ieng Sary. The FUNCINPEC were trying to use the KR as potential allies against the CPP.

The crisis came to a head in 1997. In the capital, militias loyal to the two main parties clashed. The FUNCINPEC was trying to reach out to the KR, but their strategy ran into some major roadblocks: it is tough to get a mass-murderer like Pol Pot and a bunch of paranoid psychopaths to sit down and turn into political allies. For example, KR troops, on Pol Pot’s orders, once kidnapped FUNCINPEC negotiators. In June 1997, however, FUNCINPEC leader Prince/Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh met with KR diplomat Khieu Samphân, and announced that he had reached an agreement with the KR which included the exile of Pol Pot, Son Sen and Ta Mok. However, Norodom Ranariddh had made this announcement unilaterally and the KR quickly denied any agreement. Within days, an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot ordered the execution of Son Sen (and Son Sen’s wife, and former KR minister, Yun Yat). Ta Mok, scared, ran wild and took the situation in his hands by capturing Pol Pot. Some of Pol Pot’s men tried to flee to Thailand with cash, but they were stopped by the Thai military. On July 25, Pol Pot was tried by his former ally Ta Mok’s men and sentenced to life in ‘prison’. Pol Pot’s military commanders were executed.

Meanwhile, on June 28, Khieu Samphân announced the end of the KR. On July 5, a day before the KR (Khieu Samphân) and FUNCINPEC were due to sign an agreement, Hun Sen moved against Norodom Ranariddh (who was in France) – his men disarmed Norodom Ranariddh’s men, and attacked barracks where KR men where to have been taken by FUNCINPEC. FUNCINPEC leaders were rounded up, tortured and executed. Many foreign observers denounced a coup. Norodom Ranariddh, in exile, was tried in absentia twice and sentenced to 5 and 30 years in prison. As part of a compromise, he was pardoned by his father – the King – and allowed to return to Cambodia before the 1998 elections.

Ta Mok’s hundred or so men, who had by this point turned into brigands, dispersed. The Cambodian army pounded on their base camp in April 1998, but Ta Mok and his men managed to flee. While fleeing, an old and sickly Pol Pot died. In December 1998, Khieu Samphân and Nuon Chea were arrested by Thai authorities and handed over to Cambodia. The two men apologized for the crimes of the 1970s, while Hun Sen – converted to a policy of ‘national reconciliation’ – announced that they would not be tried. Ta Mok was arrested in Thailand and handed over to Cambodia in March 1999.

The CPP won the 1998 elections, taking 39.3% and 64 seats against 30.1% and 43 seats for the FUNCINPEC. The Sam Rainsy Party, a new right-liberal party led by Sam Rainsy, a former FUNCINPEC deputy, won 13.5% and 15 seats.

Justice? (1999-2013)

A major issue in contemporary Cambodian politics has been the fate of former KR leaders. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the new regime had tried, in absentia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary and sentenced both to death. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea built a large part of its (limited) legitimacy on denouncing the “genocidal clique” which had ruled the country and publicized details of the atrocities committed by the KR while in power – for example, the Vietnamese and the new government quickly turned Tuol Sleng into a commemorative museum of the genocide. Despite such denounciations, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea never purged former KR cadres – far from it. By the 1980s, middle-level KR cadres – many of them dissidents such as Hun Sen who had escaped from the Angkar’s reach – were promoted to positions in the new regime, often after a brief ‘re-education’. In the negotiations to end the second civil war, Prime Minister Hun Sen proved himself to be a staunch opponent of the KR and conditioned any agreement on their exclusion from government.

After the collapse of the KR between 1996 and 1998, Hun Sen, however, reincarnated himself as the leader of a “national reconciliation” policy and he has continued, to this day, to show himself hostile to wide-reaching judicial procedures against former KR leaders.

In 1997, Phnom Penh asked for the UN’s assistance to create a court to try former KR leaders. Negotiations, however, were to drag on: a draft agreement was reached in 1999, a law creating the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was promulgated in 2001, the UN demanded amendments to the law, an agreement was signed with the UN in 2003, this agreement was promulgated over a year later in 2004, and judges (17 locals, 12 foreigners) took the oath in 2006. Over the course of the later half of 2007, six former KR leaders were put on trial: Kang Kek Ieu (‘Douch’), Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphân. Kang Kek Ieu was sentenced in July 2010 to 30 years in prison, less than the prosecutor had demanded (40 years).

The court’s work has been quite controversial and has attracted criticism from all sides. Many wished that the court extend its proceedings to try all those who collaborated with the KR’s crimes – extending the trial from only the top echelon to mid-level cadres who were responsible for a number of atrocities. However, Hun Sen has opposed an extension of the trials to lower-level KR cadres. His opponents claim that the current government fears that a more thorough investigation could reveal details which concerns them directly. The foreign judges have clashed with their Cambodian counterparts and the government several times, notably in 2009 when the court sought to hear from 6 high-ranking government officials including Heng Samrin, the current President of the National Assembly. Several foreign judges resigned in 2011 and 2012 after their attempts to charge and try additional suspects rebuffed by their Cambodian colleagues.

Some have also criticized that the court’s mandate is limited to crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea ‘era’ of April 17, 1975 to January 6, 1979. This narrow window ensures that the international community (US, China, Thailand and Vietnam) will not need to answer for its actions committed during the second civil war. A few more idealist voices have demanded that the trials be expanded to cover crimes committed under the Khmer Republic, including the responsibility of the top echelons of the American military in the bombing of Cambodia.

The court’s decision to drop cases 003 and 004 against KR military officers was strongly criticized.

Time is running out, given how old most KR leaders are at this point. Ta Mok died in July 2006, and Ieng Sary died in March 2013.

Contemporary Cambodia: Parties and Issues

The CPP was reelected with even wider majorities in 2003 and 2008, winning 73 and 90 seats respectively in those two elections. After the 1998 and 2003 elections, the CPP had fallen short of the two-thirds majority required to govern alone, compelling Hun Sen to form shaky coalitions with the FUNCINPEC, which fell to 26 seats in 2003 and collapsed to a mere 2 seats in 2008. In the 2008 election, winning 58% and 90 seats, the CPP won a two-thirds majority, which allows it to govern alone and amend the constitution.

King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favour of one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004. Sihanouk died in 2012. Although after 1993 Sihanouk was no longer the political animal he had been since the 1940s, he continued to be a powerful figure because of status in Cambodia to be a powerful figure, often criticizing the CPP and speaking out against the government’s heavy-handed tactics against opponents. The current monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, is much more reserved and significantly less powerful. He is, in the political realm, irrelevant – quite unlike his father – and some claim that he is an ‘hostage’ of the government.

Cambodia is, at best, a flawed democracy. The Economist ranks it as a “hybrid democracy”. US-based Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013 describes it thus: “Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. Elections are conducted under often repressive conditions, and the opposition is hampered by serious legal and physical harassment.” This might be a bit of an exaggeration (keeping in mind that the US is not all that fond of Hun Sen): elections are certainly marred by intimidation, violence, irregularities (on the electoral rolls notably) and abuse of power by the government; however, the situation has been improving somewhat – the last local elections in 2012 were said to be better than in the past. Elections might not be free and fair, but they are probably not rigged outright.

Cambodia is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world: in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, it ranked 157 out of 174 countries, with a score of 22 out of 100.

Corruption is a serious problem that hinders economic development and social stability. Many in the ruling elite abuse their positions for private gain. While economic growth in recent years has been sustained by increased investment in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, hydropower, and real estate, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers. Repeated efforts by international donors to promote tough anticorruption laws have been stalled and watered down by the government.

source: Freedom in the World 2013

Poverty remains widespread in Cambodia, despite strong economic growth in recent years. Cambodia’s HDI is 0.543 (medium), which makes it one of the poorest countries in Asia/Oceania. Over half of the population is estimated to live on less than $2 a day, and about 30% live below the national poverty line.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has all the hallmarks of a well-entrenched ruling party which has perpetuated its control of the country through unorthodox and fairly undemocratic means: it is autocratic, controlled by a small circle of insiders, family and friends, it is very corrupt and it has full control over the state’s bureaucracy, judiciary, media and law enforcement authorities. It has, unsurprisingly, used its power to silence opposition.

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize the government, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. There are many privately owned print and broadcast outlets, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties, though broadcast licensing processes remain opaque. There are no restrictions on access to foreign broadcasts via satellite. The government has increasingly used lawsuits and criminal prosecution as a means of media intimidation over the past three years. A 2010 penal code drew criticism for several vague provisions relating to freedom of expression, including one that criminalizes any action that “affects the dignity” of a public official. In September 2012, journalist Hang Serei Odom, who had focused on illegal logging and its link to wealthy politicians, was killed, allegedly by a military policeman. His colleagues urged a more thorough investigation into the murder, but none was forthcoming. In April, writer and environmentalist Chut Watty, who focused on logging in protected forests, also was murdered, allegedly by police. The internet is fairly free of government control, though access is largely limited to urban centers.

source: Freedom in the World 2013

However, the CPP’s support is not entirely artificial. One of the government’s strongest points is the country’s healthy and robust economy. After decades of conflict, bloodshed and destruction; Cambodia’s economy is now booming. Between 2000 and 2009, the country’s GDP grew at a rate of 5 to 13% per year. Escaping the 2008-2009 crisis rather rapidly, the economy has continued to grow by around 7% since 2010 and solid growth is expected to continue for the next few years. Although the country remains largely agricultural, one of the main sources of growth in recent years has come from the garment industry. The government’s liberal investment policies has attracted significant foreign direct investment in the textile industry – about 95% of garment factories are foreign-owned, most by other Asian countries including Taiwan and China. Other factors also play – Cambodia offers them low wages, very weak organized labour activism and quota-free access to American and European markets Tourism has also increased significantly and contributes a fair share of the GDP.

The country’s infrastructure has also developed after the devastation of war. New roads, harbours, refineries or hydroelectric stations are now being built – often thanks to foreign (mostly Chinese) investment. The CPP bases a large part of its appeal on economic growth and the successful reconstruction of Cambodia after years of war.

The opposition claims – quite rightly – that economic growth is benefiting only a small clique around Hun Sen and the CPP. There has also been rising discontent on the ground with working conditions and government actions. Many garment factories have this year been hit by strikes and protests about working conditions and wages, to the point that it forced Hun Sen to order employers to pay employees an extra $10 a month. Another point of contention now are land concessions. In the past ten years, over 300,000 citizens were forcibly evicted from their homes and villages as the government sold land to foreign investors – notably Chinese and Vietnamese developers. After larger protests, in May 2012, the government suspended the allocation of new land concessions.

The rivalry between China and Vietnam is continuing to play out in Cambodia, though this time in the economic sphere rather than on the battlefields. China has made its peace with Hun Sen and the government, and it has become one of the country’s top economic partners and one of the government’s strongest supporters abroad. Thanks to Chinese investment, new harbours, container terminals, hydroelectric power stations and bridges have been built. Chinese interest in Cambodia is largely political – Cambodia has no mineral or oil resources to offer in return – China sees Cambodia as an ally against Vietnam and a ally within ASEAN. Vietnamese investment has also increased significantly in recent years, being worth around $2 billion. For example, a local subsidiary of Vietnam’s state-owned telecoms operator Viettel has 42% of the mobile market. Vietnamese interest in Cambodia is far more controversial, given the long history of enmity between Cambodia and Vietnam and the strong appeal of anti-Vietnamese Khmer nationalist sentiments in the country. The opposition often likes to paint Hun Sen as a Vietnamese pawn, although that is less true today than in the past.

Western nations, including the US, have criticized Hun Sen’s human rights record and, in general, they aren’t all that keen on him. However, they are ready to tolerate him as he keeps providing stability and economic growth.

The CPP’s other major argument is that it has brought stability and peace to the country – and that voting for the opposition would mean a return to civil war and chaos. The CPP continues to play heavily on their role in overthrowing the KR regime in 1979 and openly warns voters, especially in rural areas, that voting for the opposition is like “voting for the KR to return”.

The CPP’s lider maximo remains Hun Sen, who is surrounded by a small circle of powerful insiders and old-timers – such as interior minister Sar Kheng or the ailing president of the Senate Chea Sim. Hun Sen has been actively promoting his sons to succeed him. This year marked the first time one of his sons ran for office: Hun Many, his youngest son and leader of the CPP’s youth wing, ran in Kampong Speu province. His eldest son, Hun Manet, is a West Point graduate and military officer.

The FUNCINPEC, which had been the main anti-CPP force in the 1990s, has continuously declined in power, influence and support since the 1997 ‘coup’. In the last elections, in 2008, the bottom fell out from FUNCINPEC, which lost 15.7% of its vote – to win only 5.1% – and take only 2 seats, down 24 from 2003. It was hurt by the growth of new opposition parties, as well as the CPP. For example, former FUNCINPEC leader and ousted Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh had left the party prior to the vote to create his own party – the Norodom Ranariddh Party (Cambodian politicians seem terribly narcissistic) – which won 5.6% and 2 seats.

FUNCINPEC is currently led by Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey. Its platform was similar to that of the opposition, and, despite being long subservient to the CPP, it did not rule out a post-election alliance with the opposition. FUNCINPEC recently merged with the Norodom Ranariddh Party.

The main opposition force became Sam Rainsy, whose party was – you guessed it – called the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Sam Rainsy, as touched upon in the history section, was a former FUNCINPEC deputy who lived in France until 1992. In 1994, he split from FUNCINPEC to create his own party. Hun Sen likely took him to be a serious threat, given that it is widely believed that Hun Sen was behind a failed assassination attempt on Sam Rainsy in 1997. In 2004, the Cambodian judiciary – controlled by the CPP – charged him with criminal defamation after he attacked the CPP and FUNCINPEC for corruption and claimed Hun Sen was behind the killings of several SRP leaders and his own assassination attempt in 1997. Having fled in exile in 2005, he was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison and a $14,000 fine in December 2005. He was allowed to return home in February 2006 after he received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.

After the 2008 election, the CPP’s quasi-witch hunt continued. In a 2010 trial denounced as politically-motivated, Sam Rainsy – who had fled into exile again – was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in jail. He was allowed to return just before the elections, on July 12, after a royal pardon requested by Hun Sen. Nevertheless, he was barred from standing in this year’s election.

The opposition forces united this year, to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP is an alliance of Sam Rainsy’s SRP and the Human Rights Party, an ideologically similar party led by Kem Sokha. The CNRP is defined as ‘liberal’, but as I pointed out in my analysis of the Pakistani elections earlier this year, the western media has an annoying tendency assign an easily identifiable and coherent “Western ideology” to political parties. A better ‘western’ descriptor for the CNRP would be nationalist – particularly anti-Vietnamese, pro-American/pro-Thai. Its ostensible liberalism and its focus on ‘human rights’ is an effect of its nationalist orientation and its place as a persecuted opposition force in a dominant party regime.

On domestic issues, the CNRP’s platform denounces pervasive corruption, land-grabs and economic inequality. It has fairly populist proposals, not unlike that of former Thai Prime Minister (and good friend of Hun Sen) Thaksin Shinawatra, promising a $10/month old-age pension, a $150 minimum wage for garment workers and a $250 minimum wage for civil servants.

However, both Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are nationalist, anti-Vietnamese leaders. Sam Rainsy stoked anti-Vietnamese sentiments, with rhetoric which his critics say verged on being xenophobic. Even the Vietnamese embassy denounced his nationalist rhetoric. The CNRP, for example, has campaigned hard on illegal immigration and protecting territorial sovereignty – speaking to Khmer fears of being overwhelmed by Cambodia’s more powerful eastern neighbor. In June, Kem Sokha claimed that the horrors of Tuol Sleng, the infamous KR prison-turned-museum, were a fiction invented by the Vietnamese. His comments were a godsend for the government, which organized a 30,000-strong march and passed a law criminalizing denial of KR atrocities. In 2003, Sam Rainsy had already described the KR as a “patriotic resistance”.


Turnout was around 69%, down from 75% in 2008 and the lowest turnout out of all legislative elections held since 1993. Like in the local elections in 2012, the low turnout is likely due to dissatisfaction with politics. The government has kind of lost its ability to cajole apathetic voters into going to the polls.

The preliminary results are as follows:

CPP 49.36% (-8.75%) winning 67 seats (-23)
CNRP 44.34% (+15.81%) winning 56 seats (+27)
FUNCINPEC 3.3% (-7.37%) winning 0 seats (-4)
League for Democracy 1.02% (-0.13%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.94% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Cambodia 2013

Preliminary seat count by province – percentage of seats won by winning party in each province, fuchsia represents a tie

The CPP was reelected to yet another term in office, but what is most remarkable about the result is the opposition’s success. The CPP had increased its performance in every election after 1993, reaching a high of 90 seats and some 58% of the vote in the 2008 election. This year, the CPP suffered a major setback – its worst performance since 1998. The CPP has lost its two-thirds majority, meaning that it will no longer be able to change the constitution (although it does not seem to have made much use of that power since 2008). Under a 2006 amendment, a government can now be confirmed with the confidence of half rather than two-thirds of the National Assembly.

In contrast, the opposition did far better than anybody – themselves included – had thought that they would. Their wildest dream – of the kind that most parties issue with pomp and fanfare before an election so that we can laugh at them afterwards – was to win about 50 seats. They won 56 (or maybe 55, I’ve seen both) seats and 44% of the vote.

Of course, given how close the results turned out to be, the opposition now claims that it has won and it rejects the results. Was the election rigged? It is too early to say. What can be said is that the opposition did so well despite having most powers aligned against them in the country – the government, the police, the military, the courts and the media. The opposition and its candidates often lacked access to the media, and often found itself unable to make itself heard in small villages throughout rural Cambodia. For example, an article before the election from Anlong Veng, the last KR holdout in 1998, said that the CNRP’s main problem in that small town was getting people to know that it actually existed. Voters in Anlong Veng – despite having been a hotbed of anti-government activity until not too long ago – certainly bought in to the CPP’s traditional message of stability, growth and roads (and its fear-mongering that the opposition = KR); it also helped that because the CPP controls the media and filters what information rural Cambodians have access to, the opposition was an unknown entity.

It is quite likely that there were also serious irregularities in the election process. One major problem was the electoral roll – before the election, many had warned that because it been haphazardly updated, up to 10% of the population could be disenfranchised. On July 28, many voters claimed that there names were not on the list or that other people had already voted under their name. The ‘inedible’ ink supposed to make cheating tough turned out to be quite easy to remove – allowing voters to vote several times. The local independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) noted these irregularities, but it does not seem as if any foreign or local independent observers have yet proclaimed that the election was not free or fair, and whether irregularities had an impact on the outcome.

There is also a more nasty nationalist element at work here again. Vietnamese migrants were said to have been able to register easily due to lax immigration policies. After the vote, rumours flew furiously – for example, that the CPP had shipped in Vietnamese from across the border to vote. As a result, there has been an upswell of Khmer nationalist sentiments on social media websites, with cries such as “Khmer can’t vote—yuon can” – yuon is a derogatory term in Khmer meaning Vietnamese. There were some turbulent and somewhat violent riots in Phnom Penh on election night.

The opposition’s success shows that Cambodia is changing. The median age in the country is 22.5, and an increasingly large number of voters were now born after the end of the second civil war. As a result, the CPP’s traditional message of peace and stability – and its scare tactics about the opposition meaning a return to civil war and the KR – does not move younger voters as it might older voters who remember the civil war years. The CPP has brought stability and (a degree of) prosperity to Cambodia, and can credit itself with strong economic growth. However, economic growth and political stability has also meant that more and more voters are less willing to tolerate corruption, impunity and abuse of power by the CPP. This was already evident in the protests against low wages and poor working conditions in garment factories, or anger over the ‘land-grabs’.

The CNRP highlighted issues such as these which preoccupy more and more voters, particularly those in urban areas – who have freer access to information, are more connected with the outside world and have access to more wealth and modern goods. Sam Rainsy’s return from exile earlier this month also galvanized opposition supporters.

Map of poverty by commune (source:

The preliminary map of results above (based on a map from the Phnom Penh Post) shows a division of the country between the more isolated rural peripheral provinces, most of them with only one deputy, and the central heartland of the country around Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Pursat. The opposition won 7 out of 12 seats in Phnom Penh and 10 out of 18 seats in Kampong Cham (the province returning the most members). It also won 6 out of 11 seats in Kandal and Prey Veng provinces, two provinces located in the more urbanized central heartland surrounding Phnom Penh and on the banks of the Mekong and Bassac rivers. It is possible that anti-Vietnamese sentiments play well here, near the border with Vietnam and with small Vietnamese minorities in those provinces. The CPP and the opposition ended all tied up in Kompong Thom, Kampong Chhang, Kampong Speu, Kampot and Takeo provinces – once again, all located in the more developed and urbanized central heartlands. The CPP was successful in fairly populous provinces such as Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat; the CPP won 4-2), Battambang (CPP won 5-3) or Pursat (CPP won 3-1). This region is poorer, and, in the case of Pursat, has a sizable Vietnamese population. The CPP won every one-seat province, most of them being isolated, often mountainous or hilly border provinces. These small provinces also have large ethnic minority populations – mostly Khmer Loeu (‘tribal’) or Lao.

On the sidelines, FUNCINPEC’s support collapsed again – despite high hopes for a rejuvenation after it absorbed Norodom Ranariddh’s party. Its few remaining supporters likely flocked to the opposition.

Although the CPP can form a government, according to the constitution, a valid meeting of the National Assembly needs two-thirds (82) members present. Therefore, the CNRP could keep the legislature from meeting altogether, and be in a strong position to extract concessions from the CPP.

With FUNCINPEC basically dead, Cambodia might realign to a two-party system – and one which is far more competitive than in the past. Hun Sen remains a highly capable Machiavellian leader – no wonder he’s been in office since 1985 – and also fairly young (in his early 60s) despite being in politics for so long. This is certainly a major blow to him, given how he has been portrayed as the all-powerful and unshakable leader. This might sign the beginning of the end for him and the CPP’s dominance of Cambodian politics since 1993/1997, but he can’t be counted out. He does have a succession plan – a fairly nepotistic one given that his likely successor is one of his sons – and he has shown time and time again his remarkable capacity to adapt himself to changing circumstances and conditions, both domestically and internationally. However, being used to a dormant, pliable or suppressed opposition for so long, one can wonder how Hun Sen will work with a rejuvenated and galvanized opposition which is more determined than ever.

Japan 2013

Upper house elections were held in Japan on July 21, 2013. The upper house of Japan’s bicameral legislature, the National Diet (国会 Kokkai), is the House of Councillors (参議院 Sangiin), which is composed of 242 councillors serving six-term years, elected in staggered elections every three-years. Out of the 242 councillors, a total of 146 are elected in 47 prefectural constituencies (corresponding to Japan’s prefectures) and 96 are elected nationally by open-list proportional representation. Every three years, one half (121 seats) of the House of Councillors is renewed – 73 seats from the 47 prefectural constituencies, and 48 by nationwide open-list proportional representation. Each prefecture has a minimum of two councillors, with one elected every three years.

In this election, 31 councillors are elected by FPTP in ‘single-member’ prefectures. 20 councillors are elected in ten ‘two-member’ prefectures, nine are elected in three ‘three-member’ prefectures, eight are elected in two ‘four-member’ prefectures and five are elected in one five-member prefecture (Tokyo). Multi-member districts use the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system, where voters have only one vote in a multi-member contest.

This electoral system significantly over-represents less populated rural areas, at the expense of more populated urban prefectures. The lower house of Japan’s Diet has the same problem, and voting disparities in general have been a persistent issue in Japanese politics since the 1960s; the lower house, until 1993, was apportioned on the basis of 1945 numbers! In March 2013, high courts across Japan ruled the 2012 lower house election unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is due to rule on their decisions soon – with the risk that it could declare the 2012 election to be ‘invalid’, which would create a political crisis. There is therefore increased pressure on politicians to fix the electoral system, but there is deeply ingrained resistance to electoral reform within the political elites – especially within the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has long relied and continues to rely on support from older, rural voters. Some in the LDP understand the necessity of electoral reform, but by and large, the LDP has shown very little interest in electoral reform besides the bare minimum (eg: ensuring the Supreme Court doesn’t declare its 2012 victory ‘invalid’).

Like in many (most?) bicameral system, Japan’s upper house is the least powerful of the two houses. While both houses of the Diet must pass legislation, the lower house – the House of Representatives – has the final word on budgets, treaties and the designation of the prime minister, and it may override the upper house’s veto with a two-thirds majority of members present.


Last December, the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan continuously between its foundation in 1955 and 1993 (and again between 1996 and 2009), regained power, only three years after it had suffered its worst electoral defeat in its history, at the hands of the vaguely centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ’s victory could have ushered in a competitive two-party system, instead of the one-party dominant system which had managed to survive without too much damage even after 1993. However, the DPJ’s victory turned to be a mere flash in the pan, reflective more of the Japanese electorate’s remarkable fickleness in the twenty-first century than any fundamental political realignment.

In short, since the LDP’s right-wing reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi retired in 2006, Japan has seen six Prime Ministers come and go (three from the LDP until 2009, then three from the DPJ until 2012), all of them bumbling their way through their short terms in office before being forced to resign. The DPJ did accomplish quite a few things, but it had the heavy burden of a sluggish economy and three Prime Ministers whose tenures were all quite unremarkable, even if these men had some personal qualities.

The 2012 election was more a repudiation of the DPJ than a mandate for the LDP, whose huge two-thirds majority owes more to the quirks of Japan’s parallel voting system (where the PR elements do not balance out FPTP’s disproportionalities) than to a popular vote landslide (which was barely better than its 2009 results…). Nevertheless, a landslide is a landslide and the LDP regained power. A former Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, whose first term (2006-2007) is widely regarded as a failure, returned to his old office.

After six years of six unremarkable Prime Ministers, Shinzō Abe has turned out to be uncannily popular after some seven months in office. His approval ratings stand at about 60%, a change from the lows (20-30%) reached by his predecessors (and himself in 2007). Consumer and business confidence is high. The Tokyo stock exchange, the Nikkei, is at its highest level since 2008 after surging from December to May. The reason? Shinzō Abe’s economic agenda, nicknamed “Abenomics” is popular and inspiring confidence with the public and observers. After taking office, Abe announced an ambitious economic agenda aimed at escaping the deflation/low growth trap which Japan has been stuck in since 1991.

“Abenomics” has three components: a fiscal stimulus program, getting Japan’s central bank to inject money into the economy and set a hard target for inflation with loose monetary policies, and structural reforms.

Upon taking office, Abe announced a ¥10.3 trillion (about $100 billion) fiscal stimulus package. During the 2012 campaign, Abe had faulted the Bank of Japan for not setting a clear inflation target, and vowed that, once in office, he would force the central bank to do so and adopt looser monetary policies. True to his word, he appointed a new governor of the central bank. In April, the Bank of Japan set, as Abe wanted, a 2% inflation target and committed itself to pumping money into the economy. The central bank wants to double the monetary base through a programme of quantitative easing. As a result of the government’s first measures, growth has been up (3-4% so far in 2013) and the yen, Japan’s currency, has fallen, thereby boosting exports.

However, in a country whose gross debt is 240% of GDP, printing money and demand-side measures can only do so much. That is why a lot of those who welcomed Abe’s first measures have been pressing him to be bold and decisive with the third – and perhaps most important – part of his “Abenomics” agenda: structural reforms of the economy. The Japanese economy has been dogged, among other things, by an aging population which has meant that a lot of government spending goes towards social security and pensions. As a result of years of LDP rule and the LDP’s old “iron triangle” system (the party – the bureaucracy – big business and lobbies), a lot of sectors in Japan’s economy (agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc) are protected and uncompetitive. Given the continued importance of special interest groups (farmers, doctors, business) for the LDP, many have felt that Abe would be reluctant to announce anything too radical, lest it upset these powerful actors.

However, he surprised many when he announced, in March, that Japan would begin negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led effort to liberalize trade in the region. The TPP had been an important issue in the 2012 campaign, and Abe had been fairly non-committal on the topic, not wanting to run the risk of upsetting farmers, who are opposed to the TPP and what it means in terms of trade and economic liberalization.

The structural reforms announced in June seem to have disappointed investors and business leaders, who had wanted Abe to announce some radical measures – for example, a labour reform which would allow firms to fire employees with severance pay (currently, firms are barred from firing staff employees), reforming corporate governance or allowing private companies to buy farmland. Instead, the government fell short of anything that far-reaching. It has announced only a few measures, none of them all that huge. It will lift the ban on the sale of drugs online, create a number of deregulated and lightly taxed zones and create a third category of contract workers. For investors and businessmen hoping for more, it fell short of their expectations. Partly as a result, the stock market, which had begun falling after six months of exuberance in mid-May, fell again in early June. The stock market has since been on the upswing again.

Optimistic voices say that Abe did not announce any radical measures in June because he was unwilling to take the risk of upsetting the fickle electorate before these upper house elections. Reformist voices in the LDP promise that there is more in store.

Shinzō Abe’s popular “shock and awe” economic policy, which has worked well so far, is quite a stark contrast with the Shinzō Abe who was a hapless and bumbling Prime Minister for a year between 2006 and 2007, before suffering a thumping in the 2007 upper house election. That Shinzō Abe had largely ignored economic issues, and gotten caught up in nationalist sabre-rattling. After years in the political wilderness, it appears that Abe has learned his lesson – the public doesn’t care much for aggressive nationalism and talking down Japan’s World War II atrocities, but does care a lot about the economy and is prone to love a leader who finally has a decisive economic agenda.

However, Abenomics goes hand-in-hand with national security issues, and with Abe’s goal of restoring Japan’s greatness. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and China is intent on reclaiming the mantle of the leading Asian power from Japan, which had held it since the late 19th century. In late 2012, for example, China reasserted its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands when a Chinese government aircraft entered Japanese-controlled airspace. Therefore, Abe and the LDP sees the restoration of Japan’s economic might as a precondition to regaining regional power and guarding off Chinese ambitions.

It seems quite clear that Abe remains a nationalist, whose controversial past (and current) statements worry more than a few people. His cabinet, for example, includes prominent nationalists who object to Japan’s so-called “apology diplomacy” (apologizing for atrocities committing during World War II) and who regularly visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of war criminals are enshrined. The education minister, for example, wishes to retract Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 gold-standard apology for wartime atrocities. The government is intent on amending Japan’s post-war constitution to revise Article 9, which outlaws war and bars Japan from maintaining military forces (Japan does have a military, but it is called the Self-Defense Force). In April, Abe questioned whether Japan’s wars in China and Asia between 1931 and 1945 could be defined as “aggression”. In May, the LDP’s policy chief said that Abe rejects the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang. In 2007, Abe had said that wartime comfort women were not coerced into becoming sex slaves for the imperial army. In general, Abe’s government continues to play up nationalistic values and ideals. These comments and threats, besides expressing historical negationism, also threaten regional security. For the moment, however, Abe understands that economics trumps all other issues.

Abe’s decisive and ambitious agenda is popular on its own, and the LDP is benefiting from that in the polls. However, it also helps that the LDP faces an exceptionally weak opposition. The DPJ, which governed between 2009 and December 2012, was crushed at the polls and has yet to rebuild itself. The controversial Ichirō Ozawa, who had contributed to rebuilding the DPJ prior to 2009, left the DPJ in 2012 and his personality cult outfit found itself utterly decimated at the polls in December. Yet, the DPJ’s new leader – Banri Kaieda – is fairly close to Ozawa. In opposition, the DPJ has been unsure of what to do with Abenomics – it has criticized it, but offers no alternative. Its attempts to focus on the rejection of nuclear power, one of the only issues where there is a visible difference with the LDP, have proven unfruitful. Anti-nuclear sentiments aren’t strong enough to trump confidence in Abenomics.

The December 2012 election saw another party emerge, quite forcefully – the right-wing nationalist Japan Restoration Party (JRP). The JRP won 20.5% of the PR vote in 2012, coming ahead of the DPJ, and ended up with 54 seats overall (only three less than the DPJ). However, the JRP’s success was not built on any solid roots – a lot of it was a personal vote for the party’s co-leader, Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto, and a lot of it was a protest vote from unhappy ex-DPJ supporters. Furthermore, the JRP was a hastily assembled party made up of two ambitious politicians Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara; disagreements and rivalries between the two men had already come out during the 2012 campaign.

In June, Tōru Hashimoto created a massive firestorm when he said that Japan’s ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) during World War II were a ‘necessary evil’ (and further trivialized it by saying other countries practiced ‘sex on the battlefield’) and then invited American soldiers on Okinawa to make use of Japanese prostitutes. When he had the chance to clarify or apologize, he only doubled down on his statements. Although such comments on comfort women are unfortunately widespread on the Japanese right, his comments were denounced by a wide majority of politicians and the public. It seems to have torpedoed his rising star in politics, and created another firestorm within the JRP. Shintarō Ishihara, who is no less misogynistic than Hashimoto, called on him to apologize because it threatened to hurt the JRP.

In a preview of the upper house elections, the LDP won a landslide in the Tokyo prefectural elections at the end of June (the 2009 Tokyo elections had previewed the DPJ’s landslide in the general elections later that year). The LDP increased its vote share by 10% (from 26% to 36%) while the DPJ’s vote collapsed by over 25% (from about 41% to 15%) and placed fourth in terms of seats (behind the New Komeito and the Communists). The JRP did poorly, winning only 8% (it had won 20% in Tokyo in 2012) and 2 seats.

Clearly, these elections were quite important. To begin with, although the LDP and its New Komeito allies have a two-thirds majority in the lower house, the House of Councillors – whose members were elected in 2007 (a major DPJ victory) and 2010 (a DPJ-LDP draw) – is almost split down the middle between the LDP-New Komeito government and the opposition. Prior to the election, the DPJ held 86 seats against 102 for the governing parties; 13 seats were held by the right-libertarian Your Party, 8 were held by Ichirō Ozawa’s personality appreciation cult, 6 by the Communist Party (JCP), 4 by the anti-nuclear/anti-TPP Green Wind (another DPJ splinter), 4 for the Social Democrats (SDPJ), 3 for the JRP, 2 by the New Renaissance Party and 9 by independent members (including one DPJ and one LDP presiding officer). Of the members up for reelection on July 21, 44 were from the DPJ and 44 were from the LDP-NKP.

The basic goal for the LDP-NKP was to win at least 63 seats, allowing them to win an absolute majority in the upper house. However, given the strength of the LDP and the despondency of the opposition (particularly the DPJ), Abe hoped to win at least 70 seats, which would allow the government to dominate legislative committees. Constitutional amendments, such as changing Article 9 as Abe’s LDP would like to do, requires a two-thirds majority in both houses and a national referendum. Winning a two-thirds majority in the upper house was probably the government’s wet dream, but one which it was quite unlikely to achieve.

Turnout was 51.6% (57.9% in 2010, 59% in 2012), the lowest turnout in an upper house election since 1995. The 59% turnout in the 2012 election had been the lowest turnout in a lower house election since the Second World War. The public’s trust in politicians has declined significantly in recent years, and Shinzō Abe – while more popular than his predecessors – has not been able to change that. Additionally, as in 2012, it is likely that a number of anti-LDP/non-LDP voters opted to stay home rather than vote for the despondent opposition.

The results (preliminary) are as follows (popular vote is the PR list vote, compared to 2010):

LDP 34.68% (+10.61%) winning 65 seats (47 districts, 18 PR) >> total 115 seats (+31)
New Komeito 14.22% (+1.15%) winning 11 seats (4 districts, 7 PR) >> total 20 seats (+1)
DPJ 13.40% (-18.16%) winning 17 seats (10 districts, 7 PR) >> total 59 seats (-27)
JRP 11.94% (+9.83%) winning 8 seats (2 districts, 6 PR) >> total 9 seats (+6)
JCP 9.68% (+3.58%) winning 8 seats (3 districts, 5 PR) >> total 11 seats (+5)
Your Party 8.93% (-4.66%) winning 8 seats (4 districts, 4 PR) >> total 18 seats (+5)
SDP 2.36% (-1.48%) winning 1 seats (1 PR) >> total 3 seats (-1)
PLP 1.77% (+1.77%) winning 0 seats >> total 2 seats (-6)
NPD 0.98% (+0.98%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (-1)
Greens 0.86% (+0.86%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (nc)
Green Wind 0.81% (+0.81%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (-4)
Happiness Realization Party 0.36% (-0.03%) winning 0 seats (nc) >> total 0 seats (nc)
Okinawa Social Mass Party winning 1 seat (1 district) >> total 1 seat (nc)
Independents winning 2 seats (2 districts) >> total 3 seats (-3)

LDP/NKP Government 48.9% (+11.76%) winning 76 seats >> total 135 seats (+32)

As expected, the LDP-NKP handily gained an absolute majority in the House of Councillors. Together, both parties will hold 56% of the seats. However, as was also to be expected, the LDP-NKP fell far short of winning a two-thirds majority. The gains necessary for the governing coalition to obtain a two-thirds majority were far too important; the LDP did about as well as it could in the one-member districts, but it is harder to make major gains in multi-member districts under SNTV.

The main use of the two-thirds majority would have been amending the constitution with more ease. With these numbers, however, it will be rather difficult for Abe to be able to change Article 9 of the constitution. Even with the addition of the JRP, the government would still far short of a two-thirds majority. At any rate, changing the constitution would still be easier said than done, even with good numbers. The prospect of changing Article 9 displeases South Korea and China, and the United States would likely pressure Tokyo out of doing anything which would destabilize regional politics. Additionally , the religious conservative New Komeito tends to be pacifist and most believe that it likely opposes opening the constitution to change Article 9. Furthermore, the LDP remains a coalition of different powerful factions, some of which are less nationalistic than Abe and his cabinet are.

Despite the very low turnout (and the utter weakness/near-decrepitude of the opposition), this remains a decisive victory for the LDP-NKP, arguably the first of the kind since Koizumi’s landslide victory in 2005. While they won a similar landslide in the 2012 election, it was only in terms of seats – the popular vote share for the LDP-NKP was hardly better than in 2009 and a far cry from Koizumi’s 51% in 2005. The low turnout shows that political apathy and distrust remain widespread in Japan, and a lot of the ‘floating voters’ which have decided elections since the Koizumi era aren’t any less fickle today. However, the LDP(-NKP)’s ability to win a decisive victory of this kind with such a high popular vote result (the LDP only won 27.8% of the PR vote in 2012) does show that at least some voters are convinced by Abe’s government seven months in. His ‘Abenomics’ program appears, to many voters, as one of the first decisive, ambitious and forward-looking government agendas to come out of Japanese politics since Koizumi’s right-reformist era. That being said, the LDP slightly underperformed expectations and last polls. Until June/July, the LDP was at 40-45% in polls, and the last polls showed them at 35-40% – keeping in mind that Japanese pollsters do not redistribute undecided voters. As could be expected, undecided voters broke in favour of the opposition parties. However, the LDP’s slight decline in polls since the beginning of the year might be a sign that Abenomics is showing its first strains. As aforementioned, the ‘third arrow’ (structural reforms) disappointed some reformist ardours, and the stockmarket declined in May-June from previous heights. Therefore, if Abenomics turns out to be unsuccessful, voters will show no mercy in punishing the LDP-NKP for their failures.

For the time being, however, the LDP is on the upswing. To begin with, the near entirety of the opposition is in a pitiful state of decrepitude. The DPJ did horribly, placing third in the PR vote. DPJ and non-LDP incumbents in single-member districts were almost all thrown out. In fact, the LDP won all but two of the 31 seats from the single-member districts. The only exceptions were Iwate, Ozawa’s home turf, where incumbent councillor Tatsuo Hirano (ex-DPJ turned independent) won reelection with 39.7% against 26.4% for the LDP and 14.9% for Ozawa’s cult (PLP); and Okinawa, where the non-DPJ left is quite strong (probably because of tensions related to the US base on the islands). In Okinawa, incumbent councillor Keiko Itokazu (from the small leftist local Okinawa Social Mass Party) defeated the LDP 51.1% to 45.4%. The DPJ, with a popular incumbent, came close in Mie (37.6% to 44.2%); similarly, a popular Green Wind (ex-DPJ) incumbent in Yamagata almost won reelection (44.6% to 48.2%). Otherwise, it was a LDP landslide in single-member seats, which are always the easiest to run away with. The DPJ was also crushed in a lot of multi-member districts. In Tokyo, the DPJ’s only candidate took only 9.8% (sixth, for five seats); the LDP took 2 seats, the NKP and Communists took one each and an anti-nuclear independent also won a seat (more bad news for the DPJ if they can’t even get anti-nuclear activists/voters for themselves). In Osaka, Saitama and Kyoto, the DPJ also failed to win any multi-member district seats. With such a terrible result, winning less than 20 seats and in third in PR (as in 2012), there will be some serious pressure on the DPJ to either reinvent itself or just disband itself. The DPJ is a shaky, vaguely left-of-centre coalition of old LDP opponents, LDP dissidents and other factions with diverging ideologies. It is not designed to be a weak and small opposition force.

The JRP did rather poorly, although slightly better than expected after their disastrous showing in the Tokyo prefectural elections in June. In large part, though, this probably owes a lot to a strong performance in Hashimoto’s Osaka stronghold – the JRP candidate topped the poll with 28.8%. It also won 26.1% in Hyogo Prefecture, which borders Osaka. The JRP’s star has certainly faded since December 2012, but it nevertheless remains a strong player in Japanese politics – although it would do well to avoid becoming a local-based party whose strength is concentrated in Osaka.

Low turnout favoured parties like the New Komeito and the Communists, who have a small base of loyal and motivated supporters, likely to turn out even in low turnout circumstances. The NKP won 14% and the Communists won 9.7%, their best result since 2000. The Communists managed to win district seats in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto

Japanese politics remain, as always, unpredictable and subject to rapid change on the back of the electorate’s notorious fickleness. The LDP won a significant victory, and the opposition’s sad state is a major advantage for the party going forward. However, it does remain fairly clear that voters will show no remorse or mercy if Abe’s government became less popular. For now, the government has an ample majority in both houses, which would facilitate its governing agenda somewhat and could reinvigorate Abe’s reformist drive somewhat (if the LDP reads this as a mandate for Abenomics, which it probably should).

Mexican state elections 2013

State and local elections were held in fourteen Mexican states on July 7, 2013. Elections were held in the states of Aguascalientes, Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Zacatecas. There were local elections for each municipal government (ayuntamiento) and municipal president (presidente municipal, mayor) in all states except Hidalgo. Every state except Coahuila held state congressional elections, with the entirety of the State Congress (Congreso del Estado) being renewed. One state, Baja California, held gubernatorial elections. In total, 1,348 municipal presidents and 432 state deputies were elected.

Mayors, local councillors and state deputies are elected to serve three-year terms, while state governors serve six-year terms. Like the federal Congress, each state congress is composed of deputies elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies (diputados de mayoría relativa) and deputies elected by party-list proportional representation (diputados de representación proporcional). The number of deputies elected by FPTP and PR varies from state to state.

In line with the Mexican revolutionary tradition of no reelección, no officeholder – either executives or legislator – may seek immediate reelection. The constitutionally entrenched principle of no reelección, one of the legacies of the Mexican Revolution, is viewed as sacrosanct, but there is increased support for the idea of legislative reelection both federally and in the states.

Political context

In federal elections a year ago, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), which had ruled Mexico as a quasi-single party state between 1929 and 2000, returned to power with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) to the presidency.

EPN, like his party, polarizes public opinion in Mexico. The PRI, as the former natural governing party, retains the strongest grassroots networks of any of Mexico’s political parties, and it continues to hold a dominant role in state and local governments across the country – it governs 18 states out of Mexico’s 32 federal entities. The PRI’s rule rested on its ability to placate different sectors, playing the carrot and the stick and a strong corporatist alliance. While unions once controlled by the PRI are more independent nowadays, the PRI still retains close ties and links to powerful unions – notably the oil workers’ union. However, things have changed since the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, it could get away with corruption, complacency, woeful mismanagement and even overt electoral fraud (like in 1988). Today, while it remains powerful, a new generation of younger educated and urbanized Mexicans are no longer willing to give the PRI a blank cheque. These voters, powerful in urban areas such as Mexico City (the DF) and strong supporters of the left-wing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD), are instinctively anti-priista – they view the PRI as an extremely corrupt and autocratic party which should have died off years ago, and they tend to look down on PRI voters and supporters. The 2012 election showed the growing divide between urban and rural Mexico, with EPN doing well in the rural areas but very poorly in Mexico City, a PRD stronghold.

EPN is a controversial figure for a variety of reasons. To begin with, he is a product of the Grupo Atlacomulco, a secretive and corrupt political group within the PRI in Edomex (the state of México, of which EPN was governor between 2005 and 2011) which included, at one time, Carlos Hank González and Arturo Montiel (a notoriously corrupt former governor and PRI powerbroker considered to be EPN’s political godfather). Therefore, even if EPN could – with some degree of truth – be considered one of the PRI’s younger and less autocratic members, his political rise was made possible by key members of the PRI’s old guard. Secondly, while EPN is charismatic, handsome, a smooth talker and an able politician; he is seen by his detractors as an uncultured idiot and the tool of powerful and corrupt vested interests in the PRI or strong monopolies/duopolies in the Mexican economy (his campaign was closely backed by the powerful TV giant, Televisa). The #YoSoy132 movement, which began during the 2012 campaign, is reflective of this urban left-wing opposition to EPN, viewed as a corrupt “Ken Barbie” tool of corrupt PRI elites, and the existing economic power structures in Mexico.

Given his background and a presidential campaign low on substance, many – myself included – held out little hope that EPN’s promises for economic and social reforms would go beyond words. He may have surprised everybody in his willingness to translate words (which every Mexican president is really strong on) into substantive actions and useful reforms (which few presidents are able to deliver). In his inaugural speech to the Congress, EPN promised key educational, telecommunication, financial/fiscal, labour and political reforms. Mexican presidents attempt to make their mark on their country in some way or another. EPN’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, made his mark with his militaristic response to Mexico’s increasingly bloody drug war(s); EPN wants to focus on social and economic reforms which, he argues, target the social roots of Mexico’s narcotrafficking crisis.

In December 2012, Mexico’s three main parties – the PRI, the left-wing PRD and former President Calderón’s right-wing PAN (National Action Party) – signed the Pacto por México, a list of 95 loosely defined reforms and promises which the three parties have committed themselves to. Education, telecommunication and financial reform have been the top three priorities of the Pacto por México. The Pacto is one of EPN’s crown jewels in his young administration, given that it gives him the tools to do what Calderón failed to do – forge congressional consensus to push through major reforms. The PRI had blocked many of Calderón’s reform efforts during his sexenio.

Mexico has the potential to have a strong and robust public education system, but decades of mismanagement, corruption and nepotism in the system turned public education into a complete mess. Until now, education has been controlled by the powerful teachers’ union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE), a corrupt entity led between 1989 and 2013 by Elba Esther Gordillo, La Maestra. The SNTE effectively controlled teacher hiring, promotion, evaluation and dismissals meaning. As a result, most state spending on education (Mexico is the OECD country spending the most on education, but its educational performance is one of the worst in the OECD) went to paying salaries to ‘ghosts’ who weren’t teachers, while many teaching jobs are inherited – passed on from one generation to another within the same family – or sold (one case of a teacher ‘buying’ her job for $20,000!). The SNTE and La Maestra were extraordinarily powerful actors. The SNTE was one of the PRI’s corporatist allies, but La Maestra was an extremely adroit political player who managed to ally herself with all Presidents since Carlos Salinas (1988), including the two PAN president – Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. In 2005, she split from the PRI to form her own party, the New Alliance Party (Partido Nueva Alianza, PANAL), an ostensibly liberal party which is in reality a front for the SNTE which sells itself to the highest bidder (the PANAL backed 16 of Mexico’s 32 incumbent governors). PANAL helped the PAN in 2006, therefore Calderón never really dared to cross her. In 2012, a potential deal with the PRI fell through at the last minute.

In late February 2013, EPN officially promulgated a constitutional education reform, which had been approved by Congress in December 2012 and ratified by the states. The reform will wrestle control for teacher evaluation, promotion, hiring and so forth from the SNTE and place it with a centralized independent public body. Promotions will be on the basis of merit only; as a result, teaching positions should no longer be inherited or sold. In addition, the reform grants some decision-making autonomy to local schools and mandates a comprehensive census of teachers, schools and pupils in Mexico. The very next day, on February 26, authorities arrested SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo. The attorney general (the PGR) charged her for embezzling $2 billion pesos (US$156 million) from the SNTE; he detailed how she had lived and spent lavishly on union funds, with purchases in high-end department stores in California, secret bank accounts in Switzerland, amasisng a total of 10 properties and plastic surgery in California. La Maestra‘s arrest was widely approved by the Mexican electorate, which has long known her to be extremely corrupt. For EPN, it was a show of authority – similar to how Carlos Salinas arrested a powerful oil workers’ union boss in 1989 shortly after taking office, to assert his authority after a disputed election (EPN’s election was not as disputed as 1988, of course, but he still faced protests on his inauguration day from #YoSoy132).

In more ways than one, however, EPN was not the most likely candidate to take on La Maestra like no president had ever done since she took the reins of the SNTE in 1989. However, he quickly showed that he had no great affection for her – his secretary of basic education is a longtime opponent of hers – and with the wide-reaching reform, he took her on. Of course, a cynic would be right to contend that he moved against her because he didn’t owe her anything (although many in the PRI do). In contrast, his government hasn’t been investigating other union bosses known to be just as corrupt as she was. Romero Deschamps, the leader of the powerful oil workers’ union (STPRM), is widely suspected of corruption and embezzlement of Pemex/union funds, but he is a leading PRI senator and a loyal ally of EPN – an especially important one as EPN moves to significantly (and controversially) reform Pemex, Mexico’s sacrosanct publicly-owned oil monopoly.

La Maestra would have become a powerful anti-reform voice if she had not been arrested, so with her arrest, EPN thought he had rid himself of the strongest bulwark to the reform. However, EPN and the Tripartite Pacto faced their first major challenge in April, when rogue teachers (most unaffiliated with the SNTE, now in a bit of a power vacuum) in the southwestern state of Guerrero staged large violent protests which blockaded a road from Mexico City to Acapulco and attacked local offices of the three major parties. They have allied themselves with local armed vigilante groups and some far-left agrarian movements, still powerful in the poor and indigenous states of southwestern Mexico. Proponents of the reform claim that these teachers are only selfishly protecting the old system, their job security and the old advantages. The rogue teacher claim that they oppose the reforms because it thretens job security and they view it as the first step towards the ‘privatization’ of education and the centralization of education decision-making in the hands of the state. However, some of their concerns are quite legitimate. For example, they are critical of the centralized evaluation procedures which would be make-or-break from now on for teachers. They claim that teachers in rural areas, like impoverished southwestern Mexico, face much different realities and must adapt to local circumstances in different ways than teachers in the DF. Therefore, what ‘works’ in the DF might not work in Oaxaca or Guerrero.

EPN and the Tripartite Pacto’s second objective was telecommunication reforms. Monopolies or duopolies in Mexican telephony and media have dragged down the Mexican economy (costing it $25 billion a year) and effectively closed these key sectors to . They have worked to the advantage of a small group of wealthy oligarchs – Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, owes his wealth in large part to the fact that his companies (Telcel, the local subsidiary of América Móvil; and Telmex) control respectively 80% of cellphone services and 95% of landlines respectively. Mexico’s television is dominated by two powerful media behemoths: TV Azteca (38%) and the (in)famous Televisa (56%). Monopolistic actors jealously guard their turf, often through very close ties to politicians (Televisa was accused, rightly, of media bias in the PRI and EPN’s favour in 2012; Televisa’s former attorney went on to become a federal deputy for Mexico’s ‘Green’ Party, PVEM) which allows them to lobby parliamentarians and influence legislation (see the 2006 Ley Televisa, rammed through by the PAN and PRI, under the influence of Televisa – it was invalidated). EPN taking on Televisa is even more surprising, given how Televisa basically served as his mouthpiece in 2012 and his close ties to Televisa – his wife, Angélica Rivera, was an actress in some of Televisa’s telenovelas.

The constitutional reform for telecommunications was promulgated on June 10 by the President. The new reform strengthens freedom of speech and access to information, guarantees access to information and communication technologies (including broadband internet) and telecommunications/broadcasting as a constitutional right. To regulate telecommunications, a new autonomous public body will be created (Ifetel); the Ifetel will be the sole body with the power to grant and revoke licenses – this will, hopefully, allow for technical rather than political decisions. The Ifetel will also have the power to subject dominant actors to asymmetric regulations, break up monopolies and impose limits on concentration of market shares. Two new television channels will be created and auctioned off, and neither Televisa nor TV Azteca will be allowed to bid. The reform opens up telecommunications and broadcasting to sizable foreign investment: allowing majority holdings in telecommunications via satellite, and a minority share (up to 49%) in broadcasting. The reform institutes must-carry, must-offer rules; this could force, for example, Televisa to sell its content to rivals and carry competitors’ signals.

The reform has been hailed as “very good on paper”. Like the education reform, however, it also requires additional implementation legislation and more details will need to be hashed out. There are fears that, like in the past, the dominant economic actors will put pressure on the new regulatory bodies and limit their wiggle room. However, EPN recently signed a ley de amparo, which, among others, should curtail the use of legal injunctions by corporations. There are risks that the dominant economic players will use this reform to expand their interests into other areas – Carlos Slim is eager to enter the television market, and could participate in the bidding for the two new national networks; Televisa also fancies entering Slim’s landline and cellphone markets.

The education and telecom reforms have formed the hallmark of EPN’s tenure thus far. However, his government and the Tripartite Pacto has other major reforms in mind – and these will be more controversial than the first two reforms. There is a fiscal reform in the works, which could come up this fall. Mexico’s taxation system is inefficient and filled with loopholes – tax revenue is only about 20% of the GDP, one of the lowest in the OECD. Problems in the tax system include tax avoidance (particularly the income tax), state and local governments’ incompetence at collecting taxes, the huge informal economy and tax loopholes which allow corporations to evade taxation. The reform will aim at significantly increasing non-oil tax revenue, by at least 6% of GDP. It is unclear which route the PRI and the Pacto will take on this issue. Recently, the PRI amended its statutes to allow the expansion of the VAT to cover foodstuffs and medicine, currently exempt from taxation. Consumer subsidies, including for fuel, could be phased out. This article (in English) presents various routes and explains the political horsetrading behind the reform. Fiscal reform will prove more controversial, especially for the PRD, which will likely oppose expanding the VAT to foodstuffs and medicine – an idea which is also unpopular with most voters. The PRI will likely need to give in to some of the PRD’s demands or give concessions to the PRD (and the PAN) on other reforms.

One of the most controversial reforms will certainly be the energy reform. Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, and what it symbolizes – Mexican control of its most cherished natural resource, is a source of national pride for Mexico and a sacrosanct institution. Few major politicians in Mexico would ever dare to explictly call on its privatization or the deregulation of the energy market. Besides, Pemex, through the royalties and taxes it pays to the federal government is its main source of revenue. However, the exorbitantly high taxes paid out by Pemex have left it saddled with debts and unable to invest in new technologies and further exploration – notably new underwater oil reserves. There seems to be a majority consensus among leading politicians for energy reform; the Tripartite Pacto explicitly called for an energy reform but also excluded privatization of Pemex, to the chagrin of some foreign investors. It is unclear how far EPN is willing to go with energy reform, and how far his ‘allies’ in the Tripartite Pacto (especially the left-wing PRD) are willing to go on their end.

Earlier in June, celebrating Pemex’s 75th anniversary, EPN talked of transforming it into a “world-class enterprise” and presented six main objectives – all fairly vague – including converting Pemex into a ‘model of efficiency, transparency and accountability’, ‘unlocking its potential to invest and innovate’ and establishing Pemex as an ‘industry generating other industries’. A reform will likely allow for regulated private and foreign investment (likely in in shale oil and gas, refining and petrochemicals). The Pacto mentioned allowing for ‘competition in the refining, petrochemicals and transportation of hydrocarbons without privatizing Pemex’.

However, even with these vague declarations on all sides, the reform is already sparking considerable political debate, especially within the PRD. The PRD’s 2012 presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is sidelined by the PRD’s current leadership and has created his own movement (Morena), has said that Pemex does not need reform. The patriarchal figure and founder of the PRD, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (the son of PRI President Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalized oil and created Pemex in 1938), says that reform should be limited to reducing Pemex’s tax burden. The former PRD head of government of the DF and likely 2018 presidential candidate, Marcelo Ebrard, has said that it would be a catastrophic strategic mistake for the PRD to back EPN’s energy reforms. The PRD’s president, Jesús Zambrano, appears more pragmatic but is also quite adamant that nothing is sealed. The PRD in general seems to oppose any constitutional reform on the subject; private investment would necessitate amending the constitution’s article 27.

On the issue of security and the drug cartels, which is likely EPN’s weakest suits (and he is well aware of that), the federal government can temporarily pride itself on a slowly declining death tolls – deaths from drug-related violence or organized crimes are down from the highs of 2011, but they are still much higher than they were pre-2006 and many Mexicans are still murdered, kidnapped or extorted on a daily basis. EPN’s main proposal on the security front in 2012 was to shift focus from battling and “winning the war” against the cartels (a daunting task which Mexico cannot accomplish on its on) to reducing violence and deaths, as well as creating a new police force – the Gendarmería Nacional. But it remains unclear what role this Gendarmería will assume, where its role will stop vis-a-vis the Federal Police and whether the government intends to continue Calderón’s military-led war strategy.

EPN’s ambitious reformist agenda has won him plaudits from foreign observers and journalists, who have praised his reformism and perhaps gone a bit overboard in the hype and their newfound admiration for him. For example, some right-leaning American commentators tried spinning the arrest of La Maestra as a sign that Americans should get tough on “corrupt teachers’ unions” just like EPN was apparently doing – omitting to mention her backstory, the nature of education in Mexico (compared to the US) and how her arrest served EPN’s domestic political agenda. In Mexico, by contrast, public opinion seems far more divided on the new President and certainly not as wildly enthusiastic as some foreigners might assume. His approval ratings remain positive and in the range most European leaders could only dream of these days – about 50 to 60% – but compared to his predecessors, that is on the low side of things.

Left-wing criticism – and that is from where most criticism of EPN seems to come from – decry EPN’s agenda as a broadly neoliberal one which serves the interests of the main parties, the elites and big business (domestic and international).

Electoral context

EPN’s reform, if successful and if he is sincere about them (and those are two big ifs), represent major changes for the PRI – akin to the transformation of the PRI under Miguel de la Madrid/Carlos Salinas after 1982. However, the PRI is a party with a chameleonic ability to adapt itself to changing times and circumstances.

All the while EPN’s federal government is moving an ambitious reformist agenda, some in the PRI continue to engage in the party’s darker time-honoured traditions – corruption, vote buying and manipulation of government resources for political/electoral ends. The PRI’s old autocratic tradition, in some states, is alive and well. Some might even argue that it is alive and well in the priista-controlled executive branch federally. One such case of corruption earlier this year threatened to dismantle the whole Tripartite Pacto. In April, PAN leader Gustavo Madero accused the PRI governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, and the Secretary of Social Development (Sedesol) Rosario Robles (a former national leader of the PRD and a one-time PRD head of government of the DF) of conditioning government social programs to votes for the PRI in these elections. The PAN and PRD claimed that this was all part of a wider abuse of government resources and social programs to buy votes for the PRI. Following these accussations, the PAN and PRD suspended their participation in the Pacto and threatened to pull out of the Pacto entirely unless EPN fired Robles and Duarte resigned. In any event, nobody resigned and the PAN or PRD didn’t pull out of the coalition. Despite initially washing off the allegations against his Sedesol and rushing to her defense, EPN later managed to save the Pacto from an early death by signining, in May, an addendum to the Pacto with the PAN and PRD.

Nevertheless, throughout the campaign, the PRI and PAN have traded accusations of abusing government resources. The PAN has detailed numerous allegations of misuse of government resources for electoral ends by PRI state governments, the PRI has countered with allegations that the PAN did likewise when it held the federal government (until 2012) and in the states it governs, including Baja California.

There appears, at least with the educated middle-classes, to be much less tolerance for corruption, nepotism and abuse of powers by elected officials or government officials. The former PRI governor of Tabasco, Andrés Granier (2007-2012), was arrested on charges of corruption and embezzlement of public funds in late June – his PRD successor discovered that $190 million in state funds had gone missing. Several former governors – from the PRI and other parties – are being investigated for corruption or other charges.

In May 2013, the government dismissed Humberto Benítez Treviño, the head of the federal consumer protection agency (Profeco) after her daughter, styled #LadyProfeco, caused an uproar when she had Profeco close down a restaurant where she felt she had not been served quickly enough. That same month, a PRD senator, who became known as #LadySenadora, was caught on video blowing a fuse with an airline employee who had kept her from boarding a flight after the doors had closed.

The right-wing National Action Party (PAN), which lost the presidency in 2012, has been rocked by an internal crisis in its senatorial caucus and national leadership. In May, the PAN’s national leader, Gustavo Madero, dismissed the party’s Senate coordinator, Ernesto Cordero, a former finance secretary under President Felipe Calderón and a close ally and friend of the former President. Cordero, who, as the calderonista candidate, placed second in the PAN’s presidential primaries last year, had previously criticized the Pacto, lamenting how it was built behind closed doors without input from legislators. His comment irked Madero, who dismissed him as the PAN’s senatorial coordinator (caucus leader) and replaced him with a more conciliatory Senator. However, Cordero’s dismissal created a rift within the party’s caucus – 23 of the PAN’s 38 senators signed a letter calling on Madero to reinstate Cordero. Former President Calderón criticized Madero for hanging the dirty laundry in public, saying it hurt the party.

Opposition to the Tripartite Pacto has been strongest within the left-wing PRD. It may appear odd that the PRD, whose 2012 presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) refused to recognize EPN’s victory, would sign on to a deal with EPN and the PRI. The PRD, however, is controlled since 2008 by the so-called Chuchos faction, whose hostility towards AMLO is no secret. The PRD’s current leader, since 2011, is Jesús Zambrano Grijalva, is a prominent leader of the chuchos although he is not the chucho himself – that was his predecessor, Jesús Ortega. The chuchos tend to be far more pragmatic and open to working with the PAN (and, to a lesser extent, the PRI) than AMLO is. Nevertheless, the strongest opposition to the Pacto from its three component parties comes from the PRD. Although AMLO has left the party and founded his own movement, Morena, he retains a significant minority of support within the PRD, and he may also count on the strong support of the smaller leftist Workers’ Party (PT) and Citizens’ Movement (MC). For example, while no PAN or PRI deputies voted against the telecom reform, 26 PRD deputies voted against (56 voted in favour).

Major races

By far, the most important race in these fairly low-key elections was Baja California. Not only was it the only state with a gubernatorial contest, but the state is an important symbol in Mexican politics. In 1989, it was the first state to elect a non-PRI governor, in the form of Ernesto Ruffo, the panista who had previously conquered the municipality of Ensenada from the PRI in 1986. At the time, President Carlos Salinas, a year after his ‘victory’ in an election marred by overt fraud, was quite pleased by the PAN’s victory in Baja California – it pleased the PAN, and more importantly give his presidency a crucial veneer of democratic legitimacy, no matter how shallow. Since 1989, the PAN has held the state in three successive gubernatorial elections, making it one of the toughest anti-priista strongholds.

Baja California, the northernmost and westernmost state of Mexico, covers the northern half of the Baja California peninsula. It is a fairly populous state (3.3 million), and one of Mexico’s most affluent states – it has the fourth highest HDI of Mexico’s 32 federal entities. The bulk of the population is concentrated along the coast and/or along the American border – urbanized and industrialized areas with a strong agricultural backbone, and also (in the case of the coast), one of the few regions in the state with a Mediterranean rather than arid climate. With the exception of the Mexicali Valley in the northeast or the wineries of the Guadalupe Valley (in the northwest, near Ensenada), most of the state’s interior is covered by arid deserts or inhospitable mountain ranges.

All of Mexico has been influenced by proximity to the United States, but that influence is even stronger in Baja California. Tijuana is the Mexican extension of the San Diego metropolitan area in California, and there are close ties between both cities. Mexicali, the state capital, was developed at the turn of the last century by American industrialists. The adjacent Mexicali Valley, an irrigated agricultural area surrounded by arid desert, is a continuation of the Imperial Valley in California (Imperial County). The state’s industry is driven by maquiladoras in Tijuana and Mexicali, foreign-owned factories in free trade zones. Perhaps less so than Baja California Sur (Los Cabos) or Jalisco (Puerto Vallarta), the state nevertheless attracts many tourists (or longer-term residents) from the western United States. By virtue of its border with the United States, immigrants seeking to cross the border into California will do so from Baja California. However, Baja California is a receptable for immigrants in its own right. As a prosperous and industrialized state, a large part of the state’s population was born in other (poorer) states or immigrated to work in factories or agriculture. Since statehood in 1952, none of the state’s thirteen governors have been born in the state itself – ten were born in other states of Mexico and three, including Ernesto Ruffo, were born in California.

The PAN’s José Guadalupe Osuna Millán won 50.4% of the vote in the 2007 election, against 44% for the PRI’s Jorge Hank Rhon. The PRD, which won 2.3% in 2007, has always been very weak at the state and local level in Baja California, where the contest is always between PAN and PRI. Nevertheless, the PRD’s AMLO placed second in both the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, and the PAN took a monumental thumping in 2012 in the state, placing a disastrous third in the presidential race with 27.7% against 37.7% for EPN and 31.8% for AMLO. The PAN had already suffered a fairly significant defeat at the hands of the PRI in local and state legislative elections in 2010 – the PRI won all five municipalities in the state, and 14 state deputies to the PAN’s 8.

This hotly contested race had three candidates.

The PRI, in coalition with the PVEM, PT and a small local party (PES), nominated Fernando Castro Trenti, a former senator (2006-2012). Castro Trenti defeated a controversial figure of local politics, Jorge Hank Rhon, in the PRI’s internal primaries. Jorge Hank Rhon, the son of former Edomex governor Carlos Hank González (and former leader of the Grupo Atlacomulco), is a businessman and former municipal president of Tijuana between 2004 and 2006. Hank Rhon remains closely tied to the Grupo Caliente, a powerful economic conglamerate which owns the local stadium in Tijuana, horse racetracks, a hotel and casinos; additionally, the group is intimately tied to three local trade unions which strongly support Hank Rhon. Like his father before him, Hank Rhon is suspected by the United States of ties to narcotrafficking – particularly the Tijuana cartel – and he has been tied up in a number of murky dealings. Most recently, in 2011, Hank Rhon was arrested by the military for illegal ownership of several weapons.

Castro Trenti served as a state deputy between 2001 and 2004, during which time he gained considerable influence as a local powerbroker. Even while serving as federal senator, he retained influence and became the de facto leader and kingmaker of the local PRI, replacing Hank Rhon who neglected politics after 2007. Castro Trenti is a close friend and ally Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a former governor of Sonora (1991-1997) who is currently the PRI’s coordinator (caucus leader) in the Chamber of Deputies. More importantly, however, there are strong indications that he was EPN’s favourite candidate – the President was unwilling to go with Hank Rhon, because of his judicial problems and needed a ‘cleaner’ figure to live up to his much-heralded nuevo PRI image.

There is a lot of bad blood between Castro Trenti and Hank Rhon, the culmination of an early alliance turned awry after 2007. Castro Trenti served as Hank Rhon’s secretario de gobierno while the latter was mayor of Tijuana between 2004 and 2006 and he was Hank Rhon’s campaign manager in the 2007 gubernatorial contest. In this contest, Hank Rhon’s supporters claimed that their candidate was betrayed by Castro Trenti, who deliberately failed to mobilize the priista electorate and stood idly by as La Maestra had the SNTE intervene in the PAN’s favour, to get back at her sworn enemy within the PRI, Roberto Madrazo (a former leader of the PRI and the party’s disastrous 2006 presidential candidate, a close ally of Hank Rhon). There are also rumours that Castro Trenti had sealed a deal with the PAN’s José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, who defeated Hank Rhon. Regardless, Castro Trenti’s campaign was silently undermined by Hank Rhon’s supporters, who sat on their hands. A union boss allied with Hank Rhon said that they had orders to work on the campaign of the PRI’s candidate for mayor of Tijuana (Jorge Astiazarán, a close ally of Hank Rhon), but they received no such orders for the gubernatorial campaign. The only public appearance of both PRI rivals together came at the end of the campaign, with Castro Trenti’s final rally alongside Hank Rhon in the estadio Caliente in Tijuana, the stadium owned by Hank Rhon. However, at the same time, there were reports that one of Hank Rhon’s son attended the PAN candidate’s rally.

The PAN candidate was Francisco “Kiko” Vega de la Madrid, a former mayor of Tijuana (1998-2001) and former federal deputy (2009-2012) who had already sought (and lost) the PAN’s nomination for governor in 2001 and 2007. Third time was the charm for him, defeating Héctor Osuna Jaime, another former PAN mayor of Tijuana (in the 1990s) who was backed by incumbent senator and former governor Ernesto Ruffo. “Kiko” Vega was backed by the PRD, the PANAL and a regional party (PEBC). PAN-PRD alliances, increasingly common, may appear rather contradictory for foreign observers used to a strict left-right spectrum, but Mexican politics is rather different. The PAN and PRD are rivals, but they are also united by their common opposition to the PRI, which they both incessantly denounce. Under the leadership of the chuchos, the PRD’s leadership has favoured anti-priista alliances with the PAN, beginning in 2010. They successfully conquered the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa from the PRI in 2010. In Baja California, a PAN-PRD was made even easier by the fact that the local PRD is extremely weak.

The MC nominated Felipe Ruanova Zárate. Ruanova Zárate is not a member of the MC, rather he is a priista and on good terms with the PRI’s candidate, Castro Trenti. He had already run for small left-wing parties in state and local elections in the past. In debates, he attacked “Kiko” Vega but said nothing of the priista candidate, claiming that he knew nothing reproachable about Castro Trenti. Reading his answers to various questions here, it mostly consisted of ad hominem attacks on “Kiko” Vega and nothing but praise and admiration for the PRI’s candidate. He was described by at least one journalist as a PRI plant to draw votes away from the PAN-PRD alliance.

The campaign was extremely dirty on both sides. The ideological differences between both candidates are fairly minute – their answers here consisted mostly of platitudes (for the PRI about ‘change’, the PAN about how good they’ve been since 1989) or attacking one another – so the attacks were quite personal. The PRI accused the incumbent PAN governor of embezzling 103 million US dollars, both candidates owned a large number of properties in Mexico and the US and various other attacks of that kind.

States holding elections this year (source: Red

The other races were all local and state legislative elections, of lesser importance and symbolic value, but still quite important in their own right. All of these state legislative elections (except for Baja) were ‘midterm’ elections for their governors, and some state congressional elections were rather important: Veracruz, not only because it was the biggest state to vote but most importantly because of the recent scandals surrounding Governor Javier Duarte (PRI); Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, midterm elections three years after PAN-PRD alliances defeated the PRI in gubernatorial races; and Tamaulipas, a border state on the frontline of the war on drugs where the PAN did well in 2012 because of security concerns and the unpopularity of the PRI governor. In mayoral races, the biggest races were Puebla (PAN incumbent), Ciudad Juárez (PRI incumbent), Tijuana (PRI incumbent), Aguascalientes (PRI incumbent), Oaxaca (PAN incumbent) and Cancún (PRD incumbent).

Results and analysis

Preliminary results from the PREP – these are not final certified results, and they do not account for 100% of precincts.

Baja California

(97.85% reporting, PREP)

Francisco “Kiko” Vega de la Madrid (PAN-PRD-PANAL-PEBC) 47.17%
Fernando Castro Trenti (PRI-PVEM-PT-PES) 44.12%
Felipe Ruanova Zárate (MC) 5.11%
Write-ins 0.42%
Invalid votes 3.18%

Turnout: 39.43%

Mayoral races

PRI+ PAN PRD PT MC Others Nulos
Puebla, PU (PAN) 40.31% 49.36% PAN 3.06% 1.53% 0.78% 4.79%
Ciudad Juárez, CH (PRI) 52.91% 37.78% 2.89% 2.06% 1.09% 0.14% 3.13%
Tijuana, BC (PRI) 49.3% 43.39% PAN PRI 4.28% 0.34% 2.68%
Chihuahua, CH (PRI) 50.10% 41.58% 2.12% 2.53% 0.28% 3.4%
Aguascalientes, AG (PRI) 35.04% 40.29% PAN 1.9% 12.89% 5.38% 4.5%
Saltillo, CO (PRI) 40.66% 48.08%  2.03% 1.5% 4.45% 3.28%
Mexicali, BC (PRI) 41.04% 49.06% PAN PRI 6.58% 0.32% 3.01%
Culiacán, SI (PRI) 57.83% 24.52% PAN PAN 2.36% 12.10% 3.2%
Cancún, QR (PRD) 50.68% 21.79% 13.8% 7.2% 1.69% 4.85%
Torreón, CO (PRI) 45.53% 43.8% 2.65% 0.77% 3.48% 0.33% 3.44%
Reynosa, TM (PRI) 57.12% 31.27% 4.03% 1.49% 2.36% 1.26% 2.48%
Durango, DG (PRI) 44.26% 36.6% 3.06% 11.78% 0.02% 4.01%
Xalapa, VE (PRI) 38.74% 23.02% 5.66% 2.1% 18.04% 7.53% 4.91%
Veracruz, VE (PRI) 43.05% 26.74% 22.19% 0.77% 1.26% 2.18% 3.81%
Oaxaca, OA (PAN) 39.65% 38.61% PAN PAN 5.44% 12.54% 3.76%

State congress (districts only)

(2010 results for FPTP districts in parenthesis)

Aguascalientes (18) 10 (16) 7 (2)   1 9
Baja California (17) 7 (13) 10 (3) 9
Chihuahua (22) 18 (19) 4 (2) (1) 11
Durango (17) 17 (13) (4) 13
Hidalgo (18) 18 (12) (1) (2) (3) 12
Oaxaca (25) 11 (9) 14 (16) 17
Puebla (26) 3 (12) 23 (14) 15
Quintana Roo (15) 14 (12) (1) 1 (1) (1) 10
Sinaloa (24) 21 (15) 3 (9) 16
Tamaulipas (22) 16 (18) 6 (4) 14
Tlaxcala (19) 10 (10) 3 (8) 3 (1) 1 1 1 13
Veracruz (30) 27 (20) 3 (3) (3) 20
Zacatecas (18) 18 (13) 5 (2) (1) (2) 12

The PAN-PRD ultimately won in Baja California, the biggest prize of the night. By winning an unprecedented fifth successive mandate in Baja California, the PAN managed to save face and prevent an embarrassing defeat. The race was always going to go down to the wire, but if polls are to be trusted, the PRI held a narrow advantage over the PAN in the early stretch of the race, but the PAN closed the gap by the end of the race. One analyst explained the PRI’s decline in polls by its overly negative campaign, in so doing, Castro Trenti almost turned his panista opponent into a victim.

The PAN maintained a fairly consistent 3-4% lead throughout the night, although both candidates claimed victory when polls closed. The PREP’s result are only preliminary results published on election night which make vote rigging much harder and provide transparency in the electoral process; the PREP is never a final result, the final result comes from a conteo distrital which begins on Wednesday and must end, by law, on the Sunday. Generally, a sizable lead – like Kiko Vega’s lead – in the PREP is enough to be certain that a candidate has won, although defeated candidates do not need to concede defeat on the basis of the PREP’s result.

In this case, while Kiko Vega’s lead is sizable and should hold up in the conteo distrital, the incompetence of the state electoral institute (IEPC-BC) and their apparent inability to do basic math has cast a cloud over the result. During election night, the PREP consistently showed the wrong percentages for the candidates until 21:54 PST, when the results disappeared and reappeared, at 22:27 PST – but still with incorrect percentages. Only at 2:32 PST did the correct percentages finally appear. This article details the PREP’s kerfuffle. Conspiracy theorists and partisan hacks (for the PRI this time) will be coming up with their own conspiracy theories, about how this election was rigged and so on and so forth. However, rather than any sinister at work, it appears as if there was a mistake – some idiots apparently unable to calculate percentages on a computer. The PREP publishes precinct-by-precinct results, and the conteo distrital refers to the actual official counting and certification of all precinct results. Unless there was more than a math error here, the precinct results show the PAN ahead. No party is claiming fraud, but the PRI has not conceded the race (although it now says it didn’t win, but didn’t lose either) and will wait for the conteo distrital, saying they will respect that final result barring exceptional circumstances in which case they threaten to drag this to court. However, this whole silliness reflects quite poorly on state electoral institutes – while most worked smoothly, Veracruz and Tlaxcala’s PREP crashed several times, and the IEPC-BC apparently didn’t bother checking that somebody knew how to calculate percentages on Excel. This adds to calls for the creation of a single, national electoral institute (a National Electoral Institute, INE) responsible for federal and state/local elections – the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which is far more competent than its state counterparts, is only responsible for federal elections.

Results of the 2013 gubernatorial and state congressional elections in Baja California, by state electoral district (own map)

Results of the 2013 gubernatorial and state congressional elections in Baja California, by state electoral district (own map)

A look at the results might point to another factor to explain the PRI’s defeat: Hank Rhon’s Tijuana machine turned out for the PRI’s mayoral candidate, but the machine sat on its hands in the gubernatorial race. The ‘hankist’ PRI candidate for mayor of Tijuana won his race with 49% to the PAN-PRD’s 43.4%, but Castro Trenti lost all but one of the state electoral districts located in Tijuana. PRI mayoral candidates were equally successful in the two other municipalities which Castro Trenti did win: Tecate and Ensenada.

These elections were quite important for federal politics, particularly the Tripartite Pacto. The gubernatorial election was important for both the PAN and the PRI, but particularly the PAN because of the state’s high symbolic value as the ultimate panista stronghold since 1989. This led some to come up with their conspiracy theories – that it was actually in the PRI’s interest to let the PAN win in Baja California, given that a defeat would destabilize Gustavo Madero’s leadership and further legitimize calderonista voices critical of the Pacto within the party. However, there seems to be little substantiated proof for those conspiracies – the PRI did not run a nobody and the PRI ran an active campaign with their top brass campaigning for Castro Trenti throughout. Could EPN be relieved, however, that the PAN won? Perhaps. EPN seems to be extremely dedicated to making the Pacto work, he’s certainly one of its most enthusiastic proponents given how everybody has been hailing the Pacto as one of his top achievements. A PAN defeat would have been very bad news for Gustavo Madero, whose leadership came under fire after the PAN’s disastrous showings in 2012 (losing the presidency, among others) and had recently come under fire again from Ernesto Cordero’s calderonistas. Most agree that the PAN’s victory allows Madero to breath a sigh of relief, as it strengthens his hold on the party.

However, the PAN and PRD have publicized accusations of fraud and attempted vote rigging in some states, and they are accusing the PRI of being behind it. These accusations include stealing ballots and vote buying. The PRI responded by accusing the PAN of intimidation of some voters in Baja California, and pointed out that the house of one of its candidates in that state had been attacked with Molotov cocktails. It is unclear to what extent these accusations are ‘normal’ and localized incidents (rather than part of a larger conspiracy). Nevertheless, the PAN and PRD have both warned that these irregularities might put the Pacto into jeopardy.

Outside of Baja California, the PRI and the PAN mostly split the difference. The PAN held the highest prize, Puebla’s mayoralty, with ease, and gained Aguascalientes, Saltillo, Mexicali and a few other towns (the most important of which is perhaps Boca del Río, a suburb of Veracruz) from the PRI. In contrast, the PRI held the vast majority of the other towns it was defending, and gained Oaxaca from the PAN-PRD and Cancún from the PRD. In state congressional elections, the PAN seems to have regained a majority (unclear if it will be an absolute majority or not once PR seats get allocated) in Baja California, gained significantly in Aguascalientes (governed by the PAN until 2010, although the former PAN governor if accused of corruption) while the PAN-PRD alliance did well in both Oaxaca and Puebla, which they had wrestled from the PRI in 2010. Overall, governors generally saw their parties/alliances do well; the only exception to that might be Sinaloa, a traditional priista bastion which elected a PAN-PRD governor in 2010. There, the PRI swept almost everything, the only major exception being Mazatlán’s mayoralty.

Even in Veracruz, despite the recent allegations against the PRI governor which almost sunk the Pacto, the PRI did very well. They held their absolute majority in the state congress, and now govern 96 out of the state’s 212 municipalities, compared to 81 municipalities in 2010. In contrast, the PAN which had won 90 municipalities in 2010 now holds 44, while the PRD fell from 37 to 29. The PRI’s victory in the state can be attributed to the division of the opposition.

Another state where the PRI was extremely successful was the tourism-driven state of Quintana Roo, which has always had a priista governor but voted for the PRD’s AMLO in both 2006 and 2012. The PRD did extremely poorly in the state, losing the resort town of Cancún in a landslide to the PRI, which won all 10 municipalities and all but one of the 15 FPTP districts, ensuring it that it will hold an absolute majority in the state congress.

While both the PAN and the PRI have good reasons to be pleased by the outcome, the PRD came out as a clear loser. To be fair, few – if any – of these states could be considered PRD strongholds (although the party is generally strong in Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla and, until 2010, Zacatecas) and the widespread PAN-PRD alliances blur things up a bit; but in those places where the PRD competed alone – notably in Veracruz – its results fell far short of what it might have hoped for.

The clear winner overall was voter apathy. Turnout was very low in almost every state, particularly the most important ones: 39% in Baja (which usually has some of the lowest turnouts anyway), apparently in the low 40s in Veracruz or 53% in Oaxaca. Turnout usually tends to be lowest in the most violent states (such as Veracruz, Chihuahua or Baja), where the persistent criminal/narco-violence has created a sense of fear and insecurity which discourages voters from actually voting. However, more than insecurity, low turnout also reflects dissatisfaction with all political parties. The number of PAN-PRD deals has further blurred already scarcely visible ideological divisions between parties, and little seems to separate the three main parties (especially when you consider they’re all part of the Pacto). Politics, especially at the state and local level, has become increasingly personalized rather than ideological/partisan.

Furthermore, Mexico has some of the most corrupt political parties in the world – the recent slew of corruption scandals has hurt not only the PRI (which has always been dirty) but also the PAN and the PRD, therefore the recent corruption scandals, rather than helping one party has only fueled voter apathy and reduced turnout. The smaller parties are hardly more enticing alternatives – especially when you consider that the PANAL and PVEM (‘Greens’) are run more like for-profit corporations (the PVEM could easily be considered a family business) than actual political parties. On the bright side, independent candidacies are now allowed in some states, and an independent candidate managed to win a PRI-held municipality in Zacatecas.

What are the national implications of these results? The PAN’s victory in Baja California, as aforementioned, shores up the generally pro-Pacto leadership of the party. As a result, the PAN is generally happy with the results and will probably continue backing the Pacto, although it will simultaneously continue to attack the PRI for being the PRI. Some have read the results as boosting the chances for the fiscal and energy reforms this year, which while somewhat true, is actually much more complicated than that. The election results haven’t made any of those two reforms sure things, especially given that the difficulty for the reforms (as EPN envisions them) will come from the PRD rather than the PAN.

Mexican politics is entering an exciting period, with a President who intends to leave his mark on the country – for better or for worse.

500th post!

Mongolia 2013

Presidential elections were held in Mongolia on June 26, 2013. The President of Mongolia (Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч) is elected by direct popular vote to a four-year term, renewable once. Only parties which hold seats in Mongolia’s unicameral legislature, the State Great Khural (Улсын Их Хурал) may nominate candidates. Mongolia is a semi-presidential republic, in which the Prime Minister, who is responsible to the legislature, is traditionally more powerful than the President. Nevertheless, the President may veto legislation (which can be overridden with a two-thirds majority), he approves judicial appointments, nominates the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, nominates the Prosecutor General who is confirmed by the legislature, serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairs the country’s national security council.


Outer Mongolia regained independence as a modern state from the moribund Qing Chinese Empire in 1911, a reaction to the Qing’s sinification policies which threatened Mongol society. Taking advantage of the Xinhai Revolution in China in October 1911, Outer Mongolia declared independence in December 1911 as a theocracy under the Bogd Khaan.

Mongolia is strategically surrounded by two superpowers – Russia to the north and China to the south. Since 1911, Mongolia has been pulled between either Russia and China and it has often been caught up in broader geopolitical currents between its two giant neighbours.

China did not recognize Mongolia’s self-proclaimed independence in 1911, and continued to claim Outer Mongolia as an integral part of its territory (along with Tuva, today part of Russia). China would only come to recognize Mongolian independence following an agreement with the Soviet Union in 1946, and after the Kuomintang’s defeat and escape to Taiwan, the rump Kuomintang government on Taiwan rescinded recognition of Mongolia and Taiwan did not recognize Mongolian independence until 2002! At the outset, the Russian Empire conceded to China that Mongolia was part of China, but wanted the maximum autonomy for Mongolia within the Chinese state. The newly independent Mongolian state was trapped between these two superpowers, both of which quickly became unstable. In 1919, fearing a Bolshevik invasion and later a White Russian general stirring up pan-Mongolism with the rival Buryats, Mongolian nobles called on China to step in and abolish Mongolia’s de-facto independence, which they did in 1919. However, within a year, a slightly insane White Russian general, Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, invaded Mongolia and chased out the Chinese military, restoring the Bogd Khaan. This new development hardly pleased the Bolsheviks and the Red Army, who, in tandem with Mongolian communists and nationalists, invaded Mongolia in the summer 1921 and eventually captured (and executed) von Ungern-Sternberg.

The end result was not immediately a communist Soviet satellite state, given that the new government retained the Bogd Khaan as nominal head of state, but Soviet influence grew enormously after 1921. In 1924, when the Bogd Khaan, the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed. Several Prime Ministers and leaders of the new single party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), unsuccessfully tried to resist Soviet encroachment. Between 1928 and 1932, the MPRP pushed for rapid and compulsory collectivization, abolition of private enterprises and confiscation of religious (Buddhist) properties. An armed uprising led by lamas in 1932 temporarily halted the ‘leftist deviation’ and Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden, on orders from Moscow, led more liberal policies similar to Lenin’s NEP while Moscow ordered the purges of those behind the ‘leftist deviation’. However, it was only a tactical retreat by Stalin, who returned with a vengeance in 1936-1937, purging Genden (who had become quite independent and confrontational against Stalin).

Khorloogiin Choibalsan, who ruled the country between 1939 and 1952, became Stalin’s man in Mongolia. Like Stalin (and aided by the NKVD), Choibalsan began bloody purges targeting party rivals and opponents, the military, the remnants of the Mongolian nobility and the Buddhist clergy. About 30,000 persons lost their lives in Stalinist purges in Mongolia between 1937 and 1939. The Mongolian People’s Republic turned into a Soviet/Stalinist satellite state – after 1941, Mongolia’s economy was directed towards the Soviet Union’s war efforts, Choibalsan established himself as the local Stalin, he adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in replacement of the old Mongolian script (which is awesome, written vertically) and the country was modernized in line with Soviet policies. However, Choibalsan had a bit of a falling out with Stalin after 1945, when Stalin angrily rebuked Choibalsan’s attempts to use Japan’s defeat as a way to establish a pan-Mongolian state, uniting Outer Mongolia with Inner Mongolia (which, to this day, is a part of China). Stalin pressured China and the Eastern Bloc into recognizing Mongolia as an independent state, but he was also unwilling to back Choibalsan’s irredentist attempts.

Unlike Hoxhaist Albania which remained a holdout of Stalinist nostalgia after 1953, Mongolia – once again in lockstep with developments in Moscow – had its own de-Stalinization process with Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, the more moderate ruler of the country between 1952 and 1984. Throughout this era, Mongolia remained an extremely close ally – a satellite state – of the Soviet Union. Tsedenbal actively pushed for Mongolia’s annexation to the Soviet Union, but many MPRP members resisted this and the idea was abandoned. With the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, Tsedenbal enthusiastically sided with the Soviet Union over China. Soviet troops were stationed in Mongolia, and the Kremlin retained extraordinary influence over Mongolian domestic policies – for example, Leonid Brezhnev forced Tsedenbal out of office in 1984, because Tsedenbal had been opposing Brezhnev’s rapprochement with China. His successor, Jambyn Batmönkh (1984-1990), promoted reforms similar to Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.

Between December 1989 and May 1990, Mongolia’s communist regime faced large student-led protests which pressured the MPRR into amending the constitution to allow for multi-party democracy and organize free elections in June 1990. The MPRP won the elections with around 60% of the vote, but took 358 out of 450 seats in the lower house. The transition to multi-party democracy and a market economy, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, proved difficult for Mongolia. The country went through a severe recession (food and energy shortages, high inflation) between 1990 and 1994. Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, a reformist MPRP dissident who split with his party, won the first direct presidential elections in 1993 and was a thorn in the side of MPRP governments, pressuring them to speed up privatizations, economic liberalization and protecting the rights of minority parties.

In 1996, the centre-right opposition Democratic Union won the elections, winning 50 seats to the MPRP’s 25 seats and ended 75 years of MPRP rule in Mongolia. In close collaboration with the World Bank and IMF, the Democrats pushed aggressive economic reforms, including privatizations, liberalization of price controls, closure of insolvent banks and the elimination of import duties. Inflation was down and growth picked up,The rapid pace of economic reforms, economically disastrous climatic conditions in 1999-2000 and divisions in the ruling coalition allowed the MPRP, led by Nambaryn Enkhbayar, to return to power in 2000 – taking 72 out of 76 seats. The MPRP, by now committed to the market economy and economic reforms, largely continued similar policies. The mining industry – Mongolia has rich gold, copper ore, coal and other mineral reserves – has become the main industrial activity in Mongolia and successive governments have been handing out mining licenses to foreign companies. Between 2000 and 2004, Mongolia’s economy grew steadily and rapidly. The 2004 legislative elections ended in deadlock between the MPRP and the Democratic Party, leading to a grand coalition (until 2006) between the two parties under Prime Minister Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj from the Democratic Party.

In 2008, the MPRP was reelected with an expanded majority, winning 45 seats to the DP’s 28 seats. The opposition did not accept the results, denouncing rigging and irregularities. There were large protests on July 1, with protesters setting the MPRP’s headquarters on fire. In response, President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, elected in 2005, declared a state of emergency at midnight and cracked down on the protests. Five civilian protesters were killed during the riots.

Less than a year later, DP candidate Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj defeated President Nambaryn Enkhbayar (MPRP) in presidential elections. In the 2012 legislative elections, the DP narrowly defeated the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP, the rechristened MPRP) and former President Nambaryn Enkhbayar’s Justice Coalition, a more left-wing slate including a rump MPRP. Corruption related to the avalanche of mining concessions was a major issue in the campaign, with the opposition and many voters claiming that foreign mining interests held too much power and not enough of the proceeds from Mongolia’s mineral wealth were going to Mongolians.

Mongolia has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The country went in recession in 2009, after a fall in commodity prices, but the country’s GDP grew by no less than 17.5% in 2011, 12.3% in 2012 and is projected to grow by 14% this year. With Sierra Leone, post-civil war Libya and newly independent South Sudan, Mongolia will have the highest GDP growth in 2013. Mining, of course, has been behind this economic  boom. In 2010, the government signed a deal with Canada’s Turquoise Hill Resources and Australia’s Rio Tinto to develop a profitable gold-copper ore mining site at Oyu Tolgoi in the Gobi Desert. Construction on the mine is nearly over, and it is scheduled to begin production and shipments this year. Oyu Tolgoi is a massive project, expected to account for more than 30% of the country’s GDP. 450,000 tonnes of copper could be produced annually.

However, Oyu Tolgoi and the mineral boom in general has been a subject of hot political debate in Mongolia, in the 2012 election and this year’s election. Late last year, the Great Khural approved a law increasing royalties to be paid by foreign corporations at the Oyu Tolgoi mine. That new law alarmed Rio Tinto, because the threat of higher royalties to the Mongolian government might make the project less economically lucrative for the Australian mining giant. Already in May 2012, the previous MPP government had passed the Strategic Entities Foreign Investment Law, which originally stated that Parliament needed to approve foreign takeovers of assets in strategic sectors such as mining and banking. That law was passed to prevent China’s state-owned mining company, Chalco, from taking over SouthGobi Resources, a coal mining subsidiary of Rio Tinto. But the law worried foreign investors, leading to a sharp fall in foreign investments in 2012. However, the new DP government amended the contentious law in April this year, exempting private foreign firms from investment restrictions although it tightened existing restrictions on state-owned foreign firms.

While foreign investors are worried about “resource nationalism” in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolians are concerned about getting a fair share of the profits from the mineral boom, as well as the environmental impact on the mining projects. The lightening-fast economic development threatens the old nomadic culture and brings with it new concerns such as pollution.


Incumbent President Tsakhiagjin Elbegdorj (Democratic Party, DP) ran for a second term. Since June last year, his party now also controls the legislative branch and with it, the Prime ministerial office. Mongolia’s President usually plays a more symbolic and reserved role in the country’s daily politics, but tends to champion certain causes or initiatives. Elbegdorj has advocated for democracy and human rights (notably in Myanmar/Burma), he has championed Mongolia’s nuclear-free status, promoted women’s rights and the political participation of women and led the charge to abolish the death penalty – as President he announced a moratorium on the death penalty in 2010 and it was legally abolished in January 2012. Elbegdorj’s other major initiative is fighting corruption, which he had started promoting while he served as Prime Minister. He also wants to actively target high-level political corruption, rather than petty corruption. In April 2012, his predecessor, Nambaryn Enkhbayar, was arrested on charges of illegal privatization. In May 2012, he was released on bail. He was finally convicted to seven years in jail, but his sentence was later commuted to two years in jail without fine.

Elbegdorj’s campaign focused on promises of a fairer redistribution of profits from the mineral boom and reducing corruption.

The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) candidate was Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene, a former pro wrestler who has been a legislator since 2004. His campaign, more critical of the mineral boom, focused on environmental issues and alleviating socioeconomic inequalities.

The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) candidate was Natsagiin Udval, the incumbent minister of health (the government appears to be a DP-Justice Coalition coalition government) and secretary-general of Enkhbayar’s rump MPRP since 2010. Udval’s campaign was also critical of the mineral boom and the Oyu Tolgoi deal, and denounced an increase in socioeconomic inequalities as a result of the economic boom.


Turnout was 66.5%.

Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj (Democratic Party) 50.23%
Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene (MPP) 41.97%
Natsagiin Udval (MPRP) 6.5%

Mongolia 2013

The results should probably be read as an endorsement of the incumbent President and his party’s government, buoyed by record-high economic growth from the mineral boom. Although the issue remains contentious for many, and there remains a lot of unresolved questions on both sides, a majority of voters seem to support the incumbent’s generally “pro-growth” policies. Although all three candidates appealed to resource nationalism in some way or another, the incumbent president was seen by foreign investors as the most ‘moderate’ voice out of the three.

I can’t make out much from the map. The incumbent performed best in the major cities – Ulaanbaatar, where he won over 50% in all districts with the exception of the two exclaves which Bat-Erdene carried; but also the smaller regional centres of Erdenet and Darkhan, two towns built in the 1970s and 1960s respectively with Soviet assistance. In 2009, Elbegdorj had performed best in the cities as well. However, if there was a rural-urban divide at work in either 2009 or this year, it is not readily obvious at the provincial (aimag) level.

Elbegdorj’s best aimag was Khovd, an ethnically diverse province in mountainous western Mongolia which is also his native province. He won 61.2% of the vote in Khovd. Similarly, Bat-Erdene’s best result came from his native province, Khentii, in eastern Mongolia, where he won 62.5% of the vote against only 33.4% for the incumbent, who had won 47% there in 2009. Bat-Erdene’s support was concentrated in several provinces in eastern Mongolia, most of which border his native province. I can’t tell if this is some kind of personal favourite-son support extending outside regional boundaries, or if it is a traditional stronghold of the left. In 2009, Enkhbayar, who is from Ulaanbaatar, had also won some of his best result in those provinces. From some basic research, it appears as if these aimags might have more mining going on than some of the other aimags which voted for Elbegdorj (who seems to have carried the more agricultural parts of northern Mongolia). That being said, Elbegdorj carried Ömnögovi, the arid southern desert province which includes Oyu Tolgoi, by a close margin (45.9% to 44.6%). Finally, I’m not sure if there’s any ethnic element going on. Elbegdorj carried Bayan-Ölgii, which has a big Kazakh majority, with 53.3% against 37.7% for the incumbent, but Elbegdorj had lost Bayan-Ölgii in 2009. One would probably need to look at a more micro level to find any incidences of ethnic voting – if such a thing exists.

The Economist mentioned that Elbegdorj and the DP have proposed to decentralize budgeting decisions to local authorities, something which, according to the news weekly, was very popular in rural areas and might have served to boost his support there.

Foreign investors are relieved by Elbegdorj’s victory. Fitch Ratings said that his victory “creates space for the authorities to reduce policy uncertainty”. Indeed, his victory cements the DP’s dominance of Mongolian politics – it controls the presidency, the legislature (with the speakership) and the prime minister’s chair. The DP has rarely held so much power in Mongolia since 1990, and both the DP and foreign investors are optimistic that its control of all major levers of power will allow it to break some of the deadlock and have an unprecedented opportunity to implement its platform. Fitch continued saying that “a period of political stability could allow the Mongolian authorities to clarify their plans for the country’s mining regime through a new mining law, and its foreign investment regime through amendments to existing laws”. Because of the election, among other things, the inaugural copper exports from the much-heralded Oyu Tolgoi mine has been delayed several times. With Elbegdorj’s reelection, Rio Tinto is hoping that it will finally be able to kick off production.

With the DP controlling all levers of government, a fairly rare incidence since 1990, it will face high expectations. Its first challenge will be to manage the economic boom, treading the thin line between foreign investors’ demands and popular expectations and demands. Despite the economic boom, poverty remains high in the country – around 29% of the population lives under the poverty line, and Mongolia’s HDI is 0.675, ranking 108th out of 186 countries (although its HDI has been consistently increasing since 2000). The government will have to ensure that proceeds from Mongolia’s mineral wealth are able to ‘trickle down’ to Mongolians, and that the mineral wealth enriches all Mongolia and alleviates social inequalities, rather than enriching a select few and worsening income disparities.