Source: The Wall Street Journal (24/10/2013)

The Cambodia National Rescue Party faces a difficult decision. In the July 28 election, the opposition party won nearly half the seats in parliament in an election rampant with allegations of fraud. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for nearly 30 years, offered a deal in which the CNRP ends a boycott of parliament in return for some positions of influence. In effect that would mean giving up demands for an independent investigation of the election and recognizing Hun Sen's legitimacy. Should the opposition lawmakers compromise or stay on the streets

Their choice may depend on the turnout at a three-day demonstration underway in Phnom Penh. The election marked a sea change in Cambodian politics, as voters overcame their trepidation that the ruling Cambodian People's Party would take reprisals against dissenters. Once the culture of fear was broken, public demands for change and the removal of Hun Sen came into the open. They have grown stronger by the day.

There's one highly visible indicator of the transition: Before the election, few opposition supporters dared display CNRP materials. Now regime loyalists are nervously taking down their posters.

All this has some in Phnom Penh starting to think that the CPP might jettison strongman Hun Sen in order to save itself. The city administration initially refused permission for the opposition to march around the city to present petitions at various embassies, but then the Interior Ministry, led by the head of a rival CPP faction, allowed it to proceed

Leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy (L) and a Buddhist monk (R) raise their hands during a demonstration at the Democracy Park in Phnom Penh on October 24.. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Meanwhile, the CNRP has little control over the tiger it is riding. Cambodia's population is so young that not only were most born after the Khmer Rouge, many don't remember CNRP leader Sam Rainsy's ineffectual opposition in the 2000s before he was forced into exile. That worked to the CNRP's benefit when Hun Sen allowed Mr. Rainsy to return days before the election. But it also means the opposition may not be able to strike a deal with the CPP because the protest movement would then turn against it.

That raises the specter of a repeat of post-Arab Spring chaos if a compromise can't be found. Unfortunately Mr. Rainsy hasn't shown the kind of statesmanship that would be required to forge a new consensus. For instance, he has consistently stoked populist resentments against Vietnamese living in Cambodia as a way to undermine the government.

The CNRP's appeals to the United Nations and foreign governments not to recognize the results of the election also suggest that Mr. Rainsy has yet to understand that Cambodia's future hinges on whether he or others can inspire domestic activism. In the past, Hun Sen's greatest strength has been his control over the country's resources, from the forests to the civil service, which he allocated to supporters as the spoils of office. Public revulsion has now turned that control into his greatest weakness, but Cambodians don't have a clear understanding of the alternative.

If the opposition can use its time on the streets to educate the public on the reforms needed to change Cambodia's system, it could take the helm of the protest movement. Otherwise the CNRP lawmakers might as well take what the CPP has offered and let the Facebook FB +1.05% generation cultivate its own leaders.