As the election date approaches, both opposition parties and the ruling CPP are facing challenges, though to varying degrees. While the opposition parties are facing issues of party unity, the CPP is facing economic problems. Excerpts from this month’s analysis by Dr Un Kheang examine these challenges and how these parties are trying to overcome them.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP
An SRP supporter protests against inflation outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, April 6. Rising food prices could cost the ruling CPP urban votes this July but are unlikely to hurt the party’s rural prospects, where a subsistence economy was already the norm.
The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) has faced accusations of being autocratic and corrupt. Such accusations are problematic because the SRP has run on a political platform of cleanliness, transparency and democracy.
The SRP attempted to dispel such accusations through the elections of its leadership in September 2007 when Eng Chay Eang was chosen to be the party’s Secretary General. The election of Chay Eang drew criticism from some circles of SRP supporters – notably trade unions and overseas Cambodians – while some non-SRP newspapers said the election of Chay Eang, a known gambling addict, may affect the SRP’s credibility and eventually lead to a decline in popularity.
Although it would be premature to come to such a conclusion, the SRP was hit hard in April by the defection of some of its senior and grassroots members.
Defectors’ charges of corruption and nepotism within the SRP might be exaggerated, but their accusations that the SRP leadership is being autocratic is warranted.
The autocratic nature of the SRP could be explained through the reality of Cambodian politics. Sam Rainsy faced infiltration into his former Khmer Nation Party resulting in the split of that party.
He must inevitably mistrust and fear outside interference, as well as be concerned some SRP members may be tempted by the greener pasture offered in a coalition government with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
While defections of the SRP’s senior members might not affect the party if these defectors are not active and popular with large number of grassroots supporters, have been reports by non-SRP newspapers of defections of grassroots members, including critical commune council members.
The Rasmei Kampuchea reported that one-tenth of SRP officials have defected to the CPP, though there is no independent confirmation on this figure. Still, it is a worrisome issue for the SRP because such defections will certainly affect voters’ attitudes.
The SRP has attempted to downplay these defections and stressed that its strength lay in the younger generation who are “idealistic and truly nationalist.” This is true. Given demographic changes, Cambodia’s electoral map will also change.
In the long run, a party’s strength will depend on its ability to capture support from Cambodian youth. To mobilize youth, the SRP in April organized a youth conference.
CPP snagged by inflation
The CPP has also faced challenges. Inflation has been high and is still rising. The prices of basic commodities such as gas and food items are skyrocketing.
The opposition parties have attributed these high prices to government policies and corruption, and have campaigned on these issues.
However, the roots of the problem are global and multidimensional. The upward swing in the price of oil is in part the product of the rise in demand for this commodity. Rice prices have been driven higher by low investment in agricultural infrastructure in other Southeast Asian countries, and by rising global demand.
The government has attempted to address this problem by raising the salaries of government employees and by helping to negotiate with investors to increase workers’ salaries.
The rise in prices might affect the CPP’s chances to increase its parliamentary seats in urban areas, although it will not affect its core rural constituencies given the subsistence nature of Cambodia’s rural economy.
As far as rural constituencies are concerned, inflation might help to increase the support for the CPP’s “gift giving” policies.
Another challenge the CPP faces is illegal land grabbing. The presence of political stability and economic growth in the last decade has led the price of land to skyrocket as businesses and wealthy individuals engaged not so much in actual investment as in land speculation.
As the price of land rises, given weak conflict resolution mechanisms, problems associated with land grabbing have increased.
The opposition parties have capitalized on this issue for this year’s election. Eng Chhay Eang has resigned from the Land Conflict Settlement Committee claiming that due to corruption and patronage within the committee, it has been ineffective in solving land conflicts.
This is an independent analysis based on reports from 13 Cambodia-based newspapers. The views expressed are those of the author, Dr Un Kheang, assistant director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University.