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Comment: Funcinpec: deaf to the sounds of dissatisfaction

Funcinpec can shoulder much of the blame for the weak position it now finds itself, though CPP is skilled and unafraid

to use fair means and foul to ensure they remain so. Jamie Factor reports.

Have Cambodian democrats weathered the worst intentions of their opponents when nobody was watching? Has pluralism

become a permanent declaration of popular will as competing parties gear up for a contest in which winner takes

all? Or does Cambodia face an internationally acceptable threshold of election-related violence on a playing field

that is no more level than ever before?

In the 1970's film, 'The Candidate", Robert Redford portrays a character who seeks elective office on a platform

of change from the status quo. With no prior experience in government, he wins the election, seemingly against

all odds. The film closes with the candidate's ominous question "Now what do we do?". The viewer, like

the fictional candidate, is left to wonder and hope that a sequel will provide the answer. The same can be said

of Funcinpec.

For more than a decade, Funcinpec operated under the banner of a beloved monarch as a resistance movement in exile.

The 1993 Royalist campaign was marked by an impressive demonstration of unity, perseverance and courage. Despite

the recurring threat of intimidation and brutal acts of violence, 300 Funcinpec party offices were opened and staffed

throughout the country in the months leading up to the election. What has happened to these fearless campaign warriors

in the time since the UN brought the illusive promise of power to the former party of a King who reigns once again

but does not govern?

Since winning Cambodia's first-ever democratic elections three years ago, Funcinpec has taken few of the steps

required for making the transition from resistance to a modern governing political party. The absence of human

and financial resources - including the transfer of top campaign leaders to ministerial positions, and the disparity

in wealth and properties between the CPP and the Royalist party - is cited by Funcinpec members as a significant

barrier to building an effective party organization. Equally obstructive to this process are the unpredictable

demands of a complex and volatile relationship with a more powerful coalition partner. This, they point out, deflects

the attention of senior party officials as they struggle to govern amidst an uncooperative and partisan bureaucracy.

Others paint a more dismal picture. "Funcinpec is a one man-show. There was no evaluation, no discussion about

whether Funcinpec was healthy or sick. There was no internal debate about party management, our position on the

CPP, or anything else," says the party's former secretary-general, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, now exiled in

Paris. Even a healthy person needs a medical check up every once in a while - but not Funcinpec. The doctor is

scared of his patients. This is not normal.

If the strength of a political party is determined in part by the number of people who identify with it, then party

identity is its most valuable asset. On this point, Prince Sirivudh asks "Who and what is Funcinpec?"

Indeed, when a party relies solely on the popularity and dynamism of an important personality it may face an identity

crisis when the mantle of power is passed on - especially if that leadership is transferred to a less forceful

or inspiring individual.

Moreover, if this change is accompanied by an increase in expectations that are not subsequently met, criticism

may be swift and harsh. Yet an important test of any leader is the ability to tolerate bad news. If a leader is

impatient in his demand for subservience - indeed if this becomes the defining characteristic of party loyalty

- then resentment and apathy are bound to emerge. From such sentiments as these come the seeds of reproach and


Still another explanation for Funcinpec's failure to focus on party organization lies dormant in the provinces.

Although leadership is a quality that not everyone has, leadership development is a process that almost anyone

can benefit from. Yet Funcinpec did not even consider looking, beyond an elite few to fill party positions that

were vacated by those who went on to serve in the Royal Government. Moreover, in the months following the election,

very few of Funcinpec's elected or appointed officials even left Phnom Penh.

Had they traveled more often to the provinces they could have spoken to some of the nearly two million people who

supported Funcinpec in the last election. They would know that informal leaders exist at every level of Cambodian

society - even if they are not recognized through appointed or elected position and title They work in the fields

and forests, markets and schools. They build bridges and roads and they head NGOs. While some clear minefields

so that their families can eat, others labor in vain to relieve the suffering of those who lay injured or dying

in hospitals from yet another dry season offensive, against an enemy that by most accounts is already beaten.

By remaining in the capital Funcinpec officials did not see the signs of distress on the faces of local activists

who pursued their tasks with single-minded dedication, but were then left to fend for themselves as if the election

had never taken place. They didn't notice the anger of party workers who risked their lives for a victory that

would never be theirs. And they didn't listen to the sounds of disaffection. If they had, they would also know

that it will take more than the rhetoric of politicians to regain the trust and confidence of those whom it neglected

and thus betrayed. By severing this vital link to the needs of the Cambodian people, the Royalist party lost its

most valuable channel of information. By abandoning provincial supporters with no explanation for why they won

the election but have no power, Funcinpec broke the cardinal rule of electoral politics.

If public expectations were unrealistic from the start, it is at least in part because the Paris Agreements, and

later UNTAC through its failure to implement key provisions of the accords, led the Cambodian signatories to make

campaign promises that none could reasonably be expected to keep - even if they wanted to.

As a prime minister and professor of politics, Funcinpec's president knows that no political party, for example,

can deliver jobs to all of its supporters. Yet voters like decisive leadership. They still wait for imperfect solutions

to their problems only for as long at they as believe that someone is genuinely trying to help them. Because voters

tend to reject weakness they also prefer leaders s who don't leave the country each time a crisis looms.

Funcinpec's greatest challenge lies today not in the consolidation of authority at the helm of an already top-heavy

organization, but at the base. Complicating the need to reconfigure some semblance of local party structure are

the obvious deficiencies of the current political arrangement. When thousands of Funcinpec supporters came recently

to the capital for the first time since the election they re-elected their president. Having jettisoned two of

his most capable and popular politicians, this was no doubt reassuring. But they also sent him a message, hence

Funcinpec's demand for the district positions it has long deserved. Whatever the outcome of the power-sharing dispute

Funcinpec has more than enough to do just to maintain the momentum of this long-overdue party congress - a marathon

race against time if there ever was. The CPP in comparison, has already crossed the finish line.

While Funcinpec and its allies held Cambodia's seat at the UN, the former State of Cambodia was busy building a

sophisticated party apparatus with the full weight of the national treasury behind it. Despite comments by the

second prime minister who encouraged his own rank and file to "leave the politicians to the conflicts",

the CPP does not relegate its supporters to a lower caste. And while it has not completely rejected the concept

of mandatory political participation, not all party members follow lock-step and blind on the heels of their leaders


When the CPP met with American political party institutes in July of 1993, barely a month had passed since the

aborted secession drive in the eastern provinces brought about the UN's recognition of Cambodia's interim coalition

government. The CPP's request for technical assistance was curious: it had all but rejected the opportunity for

similar cooperation during the campaign. It was not the sudden discovery of democracy and its benefits that brought

about the CPP's change of heart, but rather it seemed at the time to reflect an almost desperate need to understand

why it lost the election. As Hun Sen pointed out in a wide-ranging interview with an American journalist early

last year, there may have been a more sinister motive: "If you have no proper information about the enemy,

you can't attack them. We wish the same for the CPP." Whatever the reason for requesting this assistance it

was received and delivered.

During this period, as Funcinpec scrambled to fill its positions in the government, CPP leaders were more worried

about how to accommodate post-UNTAC expectations of political reform without giving up any more power than they

already had. In his capacity as a member of the CPP standing committee, Sar Kheng assumed the role of liaison to

the USAID-funded institutes and proffered a shopping list of issues on which his party sought advice. Here it should

be noted that Sar Kheng was not only a diligent and contemplative participant but subsequently led his colleagues

and subordinates through a year-long process that must have seemed both alien and in hindsight of arguable merit.

But from such topics as "... the organizational structure of the party at all levels, the role of the Opposition

Party, and the relationship between the Party and Assembly and Party and Government" to "... propaganda

work after the election and the organization of elections", party stalwarts acquired the new vocabulary they

needed to project and communicate an image of reform in support of the new Cambodian democracy.

It wasn't until Prince Sirivudh was appointed secretary-general of his party - more than six months after the election

- that Funcinpec began to notice what its coalition partner was up to. By then, it was too late.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the CPP has developed a skilled core of cadre who work voluntarily in pursuit

of a common goal. The party rewards their dedication much the way that any organization should - by advancing people

up through the ranks to even greater positions of authority. This, more than coercion, helps to maintain discipline.

It also enables the CPP to safeguard its interests in the government and the parliament - and still have more than

enough people left over to plan a winning strategy for the next election. Hun Sen, in his typically unrefined manner,

is unequivocal on this point as well: "The CPP has resources, 100,000 armed forces and 10,000 police. In reality,

no political party has more people, more staff, more experience than CPP". These advantages, as he also put

it, flow from ".. the reality of history." Indeed, the SoC's inexorable merger of party and state has

found a new home in the Royal Government.

If the arithmetic speaks for itself, why do Cambodia's former communist rulers continue to rely on the threat of

violence when it hardly seems necessary to ensure their triumph at the polls? First, habit is a powerful behavioral

force. Although the CPP has embraced Cambodia's chaotic transition to the free market, it remains a communist party

in structure, mindset and custom. Elections, and the voluntary persuasion they represent, are an unfamiliar and

uncomfortable proposition for those who still view the actual use of force as an acceptable political strategy.

There is a second, and more important, reason for the use of such force: the CPP is simply unwilling to risk defeat

once again. The propensity for violence - combined with the organizational ability to mobilize supporters for elections,

mass demonstrations and other political activities - presents a formidable obstacle to any challenger. Yet this

did not prevent Funcinpec from developing a rural network of support through a back-door infiltration of SoC villages

and communes during the last campaign, nor did such tactics as the confiscation of voter registration cards or

the assassination of provincial workers deter the Royalist party from achieving the unthinkable by winning the


Since then, the CPP's need for retroactive recognition of the SoC regime has only increased. This is most apparent

by the face-saving determination with which it moved to reinstate January 7 as a national holiday. However narrow

Funcinpec's overall margin of victory, it was more than enough to humiliate CPP officials who could not imagine

the possibility of losing to those they still viewed as the enemy.

Interestingly, despite a lack of confidence about competing and winning in the democratic arena, the CPP reveals

an odd certainty about the manner in which ruling coalitions manage the messy business of democracy elsewhere around

the world: "In all liberal democratic countries... power sharing is only required for senior political officials."

If so, perhaps it is because power sharing is irrelevant in the lower levels of government. In most democratic

countries civil servants carry out their responsibilities regardless of political ideology or allegiance. Public

employees who accept payment from the personal bank accounts of senior politicians share a common fate with military

officers who receive cash incentives from the party coffers of prime ministers and presidents; when they are exposed,

they are held to account in an independent court of law. It is the non-partisan character of the civilian and military

bureaucracies in democratic countries that enables the state apparatus to withstand political changes at the top

- a worthy benchmark of stability in any country. And a good thing this is: like any marriage of convenience, coalition

governments last only for as long as they have to. In fact, if not by intent, they come and go all of the time.

If coalitions are inherently unstable what sort of electoral system might Cambodians expect in the future? At least

one ranking CPP leader remains publicly consistent about the need for free and fair elections in Cambodia. This

would be good news if it were not also true that Sar Kheng is expected to ensure that the interests of his party

are not threatened by the adoption of an election law that favors the inclusion of smaller parties and disenfranchised

political groups. Perhaps it is because the proportional system used by UNTAC had this affect that Funcinpec is

all too ready to accept a "first past the post" majoritarian approach. With the KNP breathing down both

of their necks, the coalition partners have presumably considered the other benefits that may accrue to each by

opting for a system that can also yield a two-party monopoly of power.

As things stand now, Funcinpec cannot guarantee that there will even be elections, let alone the safety and security

of its supporters when the time comes. Undue reliance on international observers would be fool-hardy - nor should

their involvement in future Cambodian elections be confused with the omnipresent nature of the UNTAC electoral

mandate. This is because observers normally perform a function that is intentionally limited in scope: they do

not educate, mobilize or inspire people to vote. Moreover, because they are supposed to monitor and report what

they see, they tend to get out of the way if and when trouble starts. Before signing off on the new election law,

Funcinpec would be wise not to mistake the obvious for the obscure. When despots rule, resistance brings violence

- and it is Funcinpec, as much as the KNP, that is most at risk. The proposed electoral system will not only structure

the competition between all parties to the advantage of the CPP, it will shape the political landscape of Cambodia

well into the next century.

The bad guy in a11 of this is still the second prime minister. Like any bully in a schoolyard Hun Sen relies on

what he knows best when encountering a troublesome opponent. Having got away with such tactics throughout his political

career, he will never be satisfied with anything less than total acquiescence to what he views as his incontrovertible

right to rule Cambodia with impunity. What his reform-minded party colleagues plan to do about the threat he poses,

not to the democratic opposition, but to their own legitimacy, is subject of much wishful thinking in Phnom Penh.

For all of his bravado, scaly though it is, Hun Sen is not alone. He is simply the public face of a unified party

that continues to tolerate no encroachment upon its vast sphere of influence and power. If there is any doubt about

this, consider CPP's official response to Funcinpec's threatened withdrawal from the government: "Any political

party or... force which intends to act in detriment to the nation and people must bear full responsibility for

all consequences which arise from their actions". It does not take a paranoid imagination to conjure up images

of ax-wielding mobs or shadowy assailants as the intermediaries of such blackmail. Moreover, when defending its

unfair share of power in the provinces, the CPP expects Royalist supporters to forget that Funcinpec won the election:

"... the integration accomplished to date represents the goodwill and... concession made by the [CPP] toward

Funcinpec." Since good intentions are inextricably linked to the credibility of those who claim to possess

them, CPP leaders should not be surprised if no one thanks them for bestowing a gift that is not rightfully theirs

to give.

Armed with fourteen years of advice from their mentors in Hanoi, self-preservation is the one thing that Cambodia's

former communist rulers covet above all else. Party unity, more than any instrument of war, is the sacrosanct tool

of these survivors. If there are proponents of reform within the CPP, they have yet to demonstrate greater concern

for anything else. Far from confirming the widespread assumption that the CPP is fraught with internal division,

the party's official statements suggest that its leaders are engaged in nothing more than a tactical ploy through

which good cops and bad cops follow each other's lead one calculated step after the other. And Hun Sen would agree:

"We in reality run only one CPP. No one can understand the CPP with a European way of thinking. But let them

maintain their assessment." Indeed, there is simply no evidence to support idle speculation that the CPP:

would act to shed, or even restrain, its malignant forces if this would risk a fatal shattering of the party.

The suggestion of an alliance between Funcinpec and the KNP has been offered by some idealists who view this ironic

prospect as a pragmatic and viable strategy to ensure the defeat of the CPP in the next elections.

In Cambodia, nothing is implausible, not even the pardon and recall of an exiled prince from Paris. But it is not

the survival of Funcinpec, or any other single party that will determine whether Cambodia returns to its authoritarian

past or whether a multi-party system prevails instead. This depends, at the very least, on whether non-elected

political parties are legally recognized and empowered to compete and participate in the political life of this

country - whoever their leaders and supporters might be, whenever they emerge.

"We have given the world a new formula ... we have one government with two [prime] ministers", said Prince

Ranarridh in a BBC interview one year ago when praising the achievement of political stability in Cambodia. Even

he might argue against his own point at the moment. But if this were ever true, it is a distinction that has set

Cambodia apart only for what it is implied about the inability of its leaders to compromise through reason.

As long as the current Cambodian leadership views this coalition government as the only possible deterrent to war

and violence, there is little reason to hope that they will advance Cambodia to a new stage of political maturity.

In the meantime, a legitimate contest between honest competitors would help.Province.



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