Human Rights Party supporters hit the campaign trail in Phnom Penh.
For many observers the question posed by Cambodia’s upcoming election is not whether any party can snatch victory from the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) but whether the Kingdom’s beleaguered opposition parties can hold their own come polling day.
The fear is that the opposition, down to just ten parties from last election’s 22, could – as the sheer volume of high profile defections suggest – be practically obliterated at the polls, with devastating effect on Cambodian democracy.
“If there is no opposition party, the party in power has their hands free. It means that they can do everything they want,” said Hang Puthea, executive director of the election monitor Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (NICFEC).
“The number of opposition parties is not important, but their continued existence and their strength of will [to win elections and] develop the country is what really matters,” he said, adding that while he wouldn’t name names for fear of influencing the result, he could “easily predict” who was going to win big on July 27.
Despite the presence of multiple opposition parties on the political landscape, post-coup, landslide CPP victories at the ballot box have become the norm. This month, following a constitutional amendment that allows government to be formed on the basis of a simple rather than a two-thirds majority, it appears the monolith CPP will finally, as Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed, “govern alone.”
“I will never form a coalition with [Sam] Rainsy as he is only the opposition, let him play his role of opposition leader forever,” the Prime Minister said shortly before he entered a self-imposed month-long period of pre-election silence.
The demise of the always-unstable coalition deal with the royalist Funcinpec, in place since Cambodia’s first multi-party election in 1993, and the possibility of the first outright CPP victory raise a key question: is this the end of Cambodian multiparty democracy?
Although the well-known SRP have for years won big in Phnom Penh on polling day, a string of highly publicized defections, which the ruling party is broadcasting nightly on state-run TV, may hurt their chances this polling day.
The absence of a united royalist party also does not bode well. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who after his ouster from Funcinpec set up the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP), will be contesting the election from exile in Malaysia.
The handful of new players – such as the Khmer Republican Party (KRP) headed by former dictator Lon Nol’s US-educated son Lon Rith, the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party (KAAP) and the Social Justice Party (SJP) – seem mired in internal bickering and indecision. A last-minute vote swapping scheme was announced with great fanfare as a merger of the KRP, KAAP and SJP only to be retracted by the KRP days later.
“Merging the opposition parties could be good for the nation but I have not decided yet,” said Lon Rith on July 7 – just 20 days before the election.
Other minor parties, such as the Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party (HDDMP), seem not to mind their irrelevance in the face of the dominant CPP.
“Even though my party doesn’t get votes we will not be disappointed,” said Seng Sokheng, secretary general of the HDDMP.
He said the party should be judged on its eminent history – he claims it was “involved in the Paris Peace agreement and advocated to have Vietnamese troops withdrawn from Cambodia” – rather than its manifest lack of success in attracting supporters.
The presence of such lackluster parties on the ballot paper means that for many, such as Sok Touch, a professor of political science, there is not much in the way of competition.
The CPP’s clear party platform, formidable war chest, countrywide grassroots political machine, as well as near-complete control of the print and broadcast media and staunch support from the booming private sector means the results are “easy to predict,” he said.
Moreover, the possibility of a change of government – for example, the election of Sam Rainsy who has vowed to take back “corrupt” land concessions allocated by the CPP and redistribute them to the poor – is clearly not scaring the business community.
Cambodia is “the most politically stable country in the region,” said one foreign investor who declined to be named.
So is Cambodia poised on the brink of becoming a dominant-party system – a party system where only one political party can realistically become the government?
“We’ve got to wait and see,” cautioned John Willis, resident country director of the International Republican Institute (IRI). “[The election results are] certainly not a foregone conclusion.”
Willis conceded that in terms of access to the media, the ruling CPP had wiped the floor.
Although the street parades of various parties give the impression – in Phnom Penh at least – of a thriving competition, “this is one of the ways parties are able to communicate with voters – there are other ways that are not available to all parties equally, namely the media,” Willis said.
The CPP “absolutely” dominates the airwaves and print media outside of the campaign period, and in the most recent IRI poll – done in February 2008 – some 72 percent of Cambodians said the opposition should have equal access to the media “and they certainly don’t receive that outside of the campaign period,” said Willis.
The degree of access for political parties and candidates to the media, in particular the state media is one of the key factors that Graham Elson, deputy chief observer of the European Union Election Observer Mission (EOM), and the EU team of some 130 observers will take into account before making their report on the July 27 ballot.
“The importance of multiparty democracy for Cambodia cannot be understated,” he said. “Democracy is perhaps imperfect, but it is the best guarantee we know for long term peace, stability, economic growth and the protection of human rights.”