Amid the lowest turnout in 15 years, allegations of voter fraud and registration
problems, the 2007 commune council elections have come and gone, and left lingering
questions in their wake.
PM Hun Sen votes in his home district of Ta Khmao in the April 1 commune council elections.
Was this, as opposition leader Sam Rainsy claims, the dawn of a new two-party political
landscape, or just a yawn - as the CPP fulfilled its pre-election prediction of an
Was it an affirmation of the ruling party's popularity, as Minister of Information
Khieu Kanharith suggests, or the further consolidation of a single-party state?
Was it the end of Royal Family's political influence, as election watchdogs predict,
or typical CPP hardball that kept Prince Norodom Ranariddh's name in the courts instead
of the campaign?
Ask around and the answers diverge along partisan lines, but US Ambassador Joseph
Mussomeli believes the election process may prove more important than the outcome.
"Civilizing is more important than democratizing. All democracy is founded on
consensus, dignity and respect," Mussomeli said April 2. "Democracy is
progressing and the process was remarkable. The result was a lopsided victory, but
it's just the commune election, so it's not a huge bellwether for next year. But
there was far less violence. It was a good harbinger, especially the collegiality
among party officials, there was little distrust or animosity."
Unofficial results compiled from the CPP and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) show the
CPP winning roughly 61 percent of the popular vote, with the SRP winning some 25
"The story of this election is that in spite of manipulation of voter lists,
in spite of countless flaws and sophisticated tactics, the SRP has emerged as the
only credible opposition or alternative to the CPP," said Rainsy on April 5.
"Therefore the political landscape has dramatically changed."
But Kanharith says it's too early to call it a two-party race ahead of the 2008 national
"This election proves that the people are confident in the CPP," he said.
"It's normal for the party who receives confidence from their voters to work
harder. Therefore, our party will work harder for 2008 in order to better than we
did this time."
Although by most accounts the election saw unprecedented improvements in voting atmosphere,
concerns remain about the electoral process and the National Election Committee (NEC).
"We're now investigating the voter lists which raised the most suspicions. We
don't know whether it was a political intentions or technical problems," said
Kuol Panha, executive director of the Committee For Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL).
"The NEC is still not trustworthy because of political domination. It's not
only the CPP, but the whole of the commune and village chief administrations which
were key player in distributing voter information notices. The election process and
atmosphere was not as free and fair as the international standard. The non-CPP lost."
Some observers have expressed concern about the expanding power of a single party
that already controls the top ranks of government.
"The result of the [2007 commune] election will allow the wining party step
forward to form mono-party regime which it is against to the Constitution,"
wrote the Son San Foundation in a press statement.
"One party is always bad: it has no ability to see itself and reflect on its
mistakes and fix itself. Power always breeds arrogance and corruption whether its
autocratic or democratic. One party that stays in control too long inevitably ignores
the rules and bends things for relatives and friends," said Mussomeli. "But
I don't believe this is a one-party state. One party dominates now, but there are
other trends in society and within the CPP itself - there are some Old School hard
liners and some progressive reformists."
If the democratic process did, as most observers agree, progress in the commune vote,
Rainsy isn't ready to admit it.
"Cambodia is still not a democracy. If it was the opposition would have won
along time ago, toppled the CPP a long time ago," he said. "They manage
to remain in power through all kinds of illegitimate means. That's why Cambodia isn't
a democratic country."
Mussomeli, although optimistic, points out a historical caveat.
"Thomas Jefferson said the real American revolution wasn't in 1776 but in 1800
when power was transferred peacefully from one party to another," he said. "Because
until this happens you can't be sure you have a democracy just as Americans couldn't
be sure until the power was transferred from John Adams and Jefferson."