Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, May 02, 2008

A new Political Breeze in Cambodia

By Brian McCartan
Source: Asia Times Online

The CPP has a long history of running rough and tumble election campaigns and there are growing accusations that the party is again using intimidation and threats against opposition supporters in the run-up to the polls.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - A gathering coalition of smaller parties could give Prime Minister Hun Sen's now dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP) an unexpected run for its money at National Assembly elections scheduled for this July.

The CPP has ruled the country either alone or in tandem with rival parties since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1993 and in recent years has strongly consolidated its grip on political power. With its comparatively strong grassroots network, firm control over the national media, and recent successful economic policies, the CPP is widely expected to win the most seats at this year's polls. But perhaps not by the landslide many analysts had until now predicted.

To be sure, Cambodia's other main political parties are still generally in disarray. The Funcinpec party has recently been undermined by internal divisions, leading party founder Prince Norodom Ranariddh to cut ties and start up a new small political party bearing his name. Meanwhile, the major opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) still lacks the numbers and resources to alone represent a real democratic challenge to the CPP. The SRP party has likewise in recent years been plagued by internal discord over strategy and leadership.

Now, faced by the near certainty of another CPP election victory, talks have begun among medium- and small-sized parties of forming a coalition to contest the elections on the same ticket. Some political analysts believe there is some hope of success for such a coalition considering that the CPP received less than half the popular vote during the last general election in 2003 and the more recent commune elections held in 2007.

The 2003 polls resulted in a political stalemate, as neither the CPP nor Funcinpec managed the two-thirds majority constitutionally required to form a government. After a full year of political wrangling and paralysis, both sides agreed to change the rules to an over 50% majority and a new coalition government was formed in July 2004, which the CPP now dominates.

An estimated 23 parties contested the general elections in 2003; as many as 57 different political parties could contest the next polls, around 20 of which are expected to officially announce their candidacy during the April 18 and May 12 registration process. The three main opposition parties now negotiating the formation of a possible coalition include the SRP, the Human Rights Party (HRP) and the Funcinpec breakaway Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP). A united opposition would increase the individual parties bargaining power vis-a-vis the CPP and in an electoral upset could together form the next government.

The HRP, formed in July 2007 by human rights activist Kem Sokha, founder of the once influential and foreign-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), cuts a particularly compelling contrast to the CPP. Sokha was jailed for publicly criticizing Hun Sen's policies and has successfully ridden that controversy, along with the CCHR's strong grassroots network, into politics.

The party claims over 10,000 supporters attended its opening congress and several well known political figures have joined its ranks, including Pen Sovann, a former prime minister of the early 1980s communist government. Kem Sokha has a grassroots reputation for fighting corruption and human rights abuses earned as a lawmaker in the dissolved Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party and later as a senator for Funcinpec before he left to create the CCHR in 2002.

With those political forces coalescing, there are already signs of a CPP rearguard defensive. Several of the newly created parties are allegedly in league with the CPP and have been launched strategically as political Trojan horses to penetrate and disrupt a possible united opposition front.

Democratic dirty tricks

The CPP has a long history of running rough and tumble election campaigns and there are growing accusations that the party is again using intimidation and threats against opposition supporters in the run-up to the polls. Senate elections held in January 2006 were criticized by local election monitoring organizations as undemocratic and slanted in favor of CPP-affiliated candidates. For the upcoming elections, 7,000 local election observers and 40 international monitoring bodies have registered to observe the elections.

Ou Virak, the current president of CCHR, believes that while overall the election environment will be better than previous polls, by international standards they still will not be free and fair. He claims that in recent months opposition activists have received threats and that a few have even been killed under mysterious circumstances.

Although there is not yet any hard evidence to indicate any political motivation behind the murders, Ou Virak sees the upshot in killings as "worrisome", particularly considering one of the main opposition parties is running under a human rights banner.

There has also been growing pressure on opposition members to defect to the CPP, particularly among SRP candidates. Where that doesn't work threats have been made against certain SRP commune chiefs and at least one, Tout Saron from Kompong Thom province, was jailed on March 18 on the some say trumped up charges of allegedly preventing an SRT activist from defecting to the CPP. The arrest of two other SRP officials is also being sought in connection with the case.

The arrest and warrants are already drumming up bad publicity for the CPP. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a March 23 statement, "Dubious arrests of opposition officials months ahead of an election should set alarm bells ringing. This divide-and-conquer strategy is a well-known tactic of Prime Minister Hun Sen to subdue his opponents."

In the same statement, the US-based rights advocacy group said it believes that the CPP is conducting a "concerted campaign to coerce SRP members to defect to the CPP and punish those who refuse to do so, with the intention to split and weaken the opposition party before the national elections".

Hun Sen's CPP has long harassed the SRP, according to rights groups. In 2005, SRP member of parliament Cheam Channy was convicted to seven years in prison for what many considered an unsubstantiated charge of creating a rebel army. He served one year and was released after receiving a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni. SRP leader Sam Rainsy, meanwhile, was convicted that same year for defamation of government leaders and fled the country. That intimidation follows on the bloody and still unresolved grenade attack against a Sam Rainsy rally in 1997 which killed 16 and injured 150 people. Human Rights Watch has alleged the attack was carried out by Hun Sen's own bodyguard unit, charges the premier has strongly denied.

Faced with such strong-arm tactics, few expect the opposition to actually win the July polls. Amendments to previous election laws mean that the CPP can form a government as long as it wins over 50% of the vote, rather than the previous constitutional requirement of a two-thirds majority. In 2003, inconclusive poll results meant that neither the CPP nor Funcinpec could form a government until several months later an agreement to amend the rules was reached.

With an opposition coalition in the offing, it's unclear if the CPP will need to reach out to one of the medium or several of the small parties to form the next government. After a major split and a number of defections, the CPP's current coalition partner, Funcinpec, is not expected to win as many seats at the upcoming polls as it managed in 2003. The party currently holds 20 of the National Assembly's 123 seats.

Due to their historical antagonistic relations with Hun Sen, it seems unlikely for now that the leaders of any of the other major opposition parties - including the SRP, HRP and NRP - would be keen without major concessions to join a CPP-dominated coalition government. Whether their party representatives, many as in the case of the SRP now in the opposition for over a decade, share those views after this July's polls will represent the success or failure of a united opposition.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

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