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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Defections seen alienating voters

Defections seen alienating voters

The recent flurry of defections between the royalist Funcinpec party and the opposition

Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), ostensibly to "fight corruption and promote democracy",

has been criticized by some politicians and observers as political posturing and

outright opportunism in the run-up to the July 27 general election.

Senior royalist party member and second-vice-president of the Senate, Nhiek Bun Chhay,

said the shifting allegiances would leave voters feeling confused ahead of the election

and would damage the democratic process.

"I don't want to see those officials run back and forth between the parties

because that is not something which benefits democracy," Bun Chhay said. "They

are fish in the same cage."

However another Funcinpec politician, Klok Buddhi, was less critical. He felt it

was unfair to accuse politicians who defected of exploiting the current fluid situation

for political benefit.

"I don't think there is anything strange [about the defections]," he said.

This is a democracy, and if they aren't happy they are entitled to leave their party."

And other officials from both parties have defended the practice of switching parties.

The defectors claim to have changed sides after a loss of confidence in the candidate

list that will represent the parties prior to the elections, or the culmination of

a long, disillusioning experience working within the organization.

At the SRP congress, which was held on March 28 and 29, three of those headed to

the royalists accused party leader Sam Rainsy of acting as a "dictator".

MPs Lim Sokun, Sun Kimhun, and Hong Sokheang added that Rainsy was corrupt for appointing

a new non-transparent, 60-member steering committee.

Finally, they said, Rainsy was treating the party "the same as Khmer Rouge regime".

"In my opinion the SRP was badly corrupted between 2001 and 2003," said

Sokun, "and therefore, I cannot stay with this party."

But members of both parties have been quick to disparage those leaving for opposing

sides as either insincere or incompetent. The war of words continued from those who

crossed to the opposition, with several former Funcinpec lawmakers, newly christened

as members of the SRP standing committee, telling the Post that the three former

opposition MPs had already been sidelined by the SRP.

The three were accused of failing to address their constituencies - Pailin, Takeo

and Kampong Cham - during their term as SRP legislators, and consequently commanded

little public support.

But politics is often driven by murkier motives, such as money, a point that one

political observer said could explain some of the defections. Further motivations,

he said, were the lack of prestige felt by some within their former parties, and

naked opportunism a few months ahead of polling day.

"I don't think most are joining the other parties out of some idea or their

political convictions. They are more driven by dissatisfaction and self-interest,"

the observer said. "These are based, more or less, on superficial motives."

He added that most of the defectors were alienated from their own party's leadership,

and consequently had nowhere else to go.

But whatever the motivations, the outcome of the changes was that party rosters had

to be revised several times over the past month. At least 31 party officials switched

places by early April, and there are solid predictions that more changes will come.

Quite who will win this pre-election posturing is not yet clear.

The current wave of defections began in late February when Kieng Vang, the former

Funcinpec secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, announced he was headed

to the opposition.

News in early March that some Funcinpec generals and other officials would defect

to the SRP preceded a surge of new departures from the troubled royalist party. Soon

after that three Funcinpec MPs and four government officials followed them.

Tempering the opposition's glee, SRP MP Hor Sopheap announced two days later that

he was going to Funcinpec. To the satisfaction of the royalists, he was followed

on April 2 by three other MPs.

But there are some, like Bun Chhay, who see this as dangerous sport. Duong Khem,

a former Funcinpec resistance fighter, told reporters that both the royalists and

the SRP would lose from this strategy. He said voters would become disillusioned

if they perceived that their former representatives were party-hopping simply to

gain power and money.

Khem felt that could set the stage for an outright victory by the ruling Cambodian

People's Party (CPP), which swept the local elections last year. Since the CPP needs

a two-thirds majority to form a new government - it currently has 64 of the National

Assembly's 122 seats (one will be added for the election) - he is concerned that

both parties risk being shut out of any form of power-sharing.

He noted that the four SRP legislators who had defected to Funcinpec had been members

of the royalist party prior to the formation of the coalition with the CPP. Khem

questioned the timing of their return so close to the election.

"I am an elder within Funcinpec, and in my opinion running from one party to

another, going back and forth, is of no benefit to either Funcinpec or the SRP,"

he said. "I want Sam Rainsy to stand together with Funcinpec."

But the tone within the SRP is uncompromising: Sam Rainsy has insisted he will not

join a coalition government that has either Hun Sen or Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom

Ranariddh on board.

Rainsy's comments drew a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Hun Sen. As the defection

wars swung back and forth, Hun Sen described the SRP's place as in opposition. Its

continual criticisms and insults towards the government, he said, showed there was

democracy in Cambodia.

"One party says it will only work in government without Hun Sen and Ranariddh,"

said the PM, "but [Rainsy] is daydreaming. His is a gangster's strategy which

will never be achieved."

But beyond the rhetoric, said the political observer, the wave of defections pointed

to deep divisions within the parties, particularly Funcinpec, over the distribution

of power.

"Nowadays more strength means more power," he said. "It is this which

has led to these defections, and it is this which has led to a movement of dissatisfaction

among some MPs."

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