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Monitoring the media: party politics

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In this regular analysis of Cambodian newspaper coverage leading up to the elections, Kheang Un looks at the CPP’s celebration of 7 January Day, the opposition parties’ responses, as well as campaign activities and the party views of Cambodia’s democracy.

Since 1979, the CPP has celebrated 7 January Day, the day when Cambodia was liberated from the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime under which close to two million Cambodians were killed. The current celebration differs from those held under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the State of Cambodia.

Under the old regimes, people were reminded of the 7 January Day as their second birth and were asked to sacrifice their labor, resources and loved ones to fight to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge. During this year’s celebration with no further Khmer Rouge threat and with electoral democracy established, the CPP appealed to the general public and participants in the celebration in a different way. 

The CPP continues to remind the public that 7 January is the day of their second birth, reminding voters that the CPP saved Cambodians from Pol Pot’s killing.  But now the CPP reminds voters that they have also helped to improve people’s livelihood through numerous development projects. Instead of appealing to the public to sacrifice for the country, representatives of the CPP offer gifts to attendees, a gesture indicating that the CPP continues to care for Cambodians, acts that their rhetoric asserts are different from the empty promises made by other political parties. Out of gratitude to the CPP, Cambodians should be obligated to cast their votes for the party.

Opposition parties, particularly the SRP, portrayed 7 January, 1979 as the day of Cambodian subordination to the Vietnamese. This argument is aimed at overseas Cambodian communities more than domestic constituencies. Anti-Vietnamese and anti-CPP sentiments remain strong among overseas Cambodians.

In the era of global interconnectedness, overseas Cambodians have become one of the pillars for financial and political support for opposition parties. They contribute financially to the resource scarce opposition parties. Politically, overseas Cambodian communities help raise awareness of opposition parties’ causes among the government and elected representatives in their new countries. By lobbying European and North American politicians, overseas Khmers have generated some political and moral support for opposition causes.

The SRP realizes that 7 January remains a major factor for the CPP’s electoral legitimacy, but it is certainly fading given Cambodia’s recent demographic change.

Approximately 70 percent of Cambodians were born after January 1979 and have no memory of Khmer Rouge atrocities. These peoples’ expectations are arguably higher than that of their parents’ generation who might agree with using the Khmer Rouge regime as a baseline of comparison to assess the country’s level of development.

SRP is instead looking for new issues that will resonate with younger voters. This helps to explain the SRP’s urban campaign for city clean-up projects. The SRP’s rubbish collection campaign in urban areas is an effort by the party to capitalize on its popularity among urban constituencies and particularly young voters.

The CPP is well aware of SRP’s strategy and strength among youth and urban voters. Two CPP strategies are noticeable in this regard. Responding to demographic change and mobility, the CPP has also increased its activities in Phnom Penh. Recently, the CPP leadership also focused on youth organizations and on strengthening its grassroots activities in urban areas. 

This month’s news stories reported active CPP campaigns in Khan Meanchey and Reasey Keo where CPP party leaders recruited, met with, and donated gifts to new supporters. Such practices, which opposition parties and civil society organizations have characterized as vote buying, were previously employed in rural areas but not in urban centers.

This month the media also reported the alleged defection of senior Funcinpec members to the CPP, raising the possibility of the eventual disintegration of Funcinpec.

The fading fortune of Funcinpec reflects the nature of a weak party unable to institutionalize. It had been a personality-based political party tied to its former leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. While the party had declined steadily under Prince Ranariddh’s leadership, his expulsion has led the party to possible eventual disintegration.

The current Funcinpec leadership maintains that the party remains relevant and has vowed to increase its grassroots activities. The leadership has pointed to the CPP’s public support for a CPP-Funcinpec coalition partnership, a commitment that was reiterated during the CPP’s January 2008 extraordinary congress.

Interestingly, given Funcinpec’s internal quarrels, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Funcinpec had to have at least one seat in the National Assembly if it wanted to remain a CPP coalition partner. Given its internal quarrels and continuing declining popularity, what benefits will a Funcinpec-CPP coalition be able to provide to its senior members? Fading hope within its leadership circle might help explain the rate of past defections and rumors of further defections.

Norodom Ranariddh remains unable to return to Cambodia. His appeal to the Supreme Court remains in limbo while his appeal for international intervention was met with silence.

Despite this setback, the prince continues his “mobile phone campaign,” outlining his vague, impossibly idealistic, policy platform promising rapid economic development, including universal availability of electricity and equitable distribution of resources. While accusing Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha of selling out to the CPP, Prince Norodom Ranariddh continues to appeal to SRP and HRP to form a united front with NRP against the CPP.

Another important point raised in this month’s media coverage is the fact that the SRP is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, it continues to accuse the CPP of manipulating the electoral process and distorting the process of decentralization. On the other hand, Sam Rainsy made optimistic remarks concerning the direction of Cambodian democracy.

Sam Rainsy was reported to have stated that Cambodia’s democracy has reached a stage of maturity. This statement, Rainsy claimed, was based upon Prime Minister Hun Sen’s promise that there would be a peaceful transfer of power if the CPP lost the coming elections, and that the military would not intervene in political affairs.

Given the CPP’s superior organization, resources, and active and sustained grassroots organizations, and the constitutional requirement for a simple majority for government formation, it is widely believed that the CPP will win.

However, the SRP believes that some people voted for the CPP out of fear of political instability. They think that if they vote not out of fear but from their conscience, the SRP would fare much better in future elections, leading Cambodia toward a two party system dominated by the CPP and the SRP.

Therefore, Sam Rainsy’s remark could be read as an effort to send a comforting message to the public that they should not fear that a victory by the SRP means political instability, or possibly civil war, because the CPP would not concede to electoral defeat.  Thus, his statement is a way to attract more votes.

If Sam Rainsy and the CPP sincerely believe that Cambodian democracy has reached maturity wherein the politics of give and take, and of possibility of exit and reentry are accepted by all players, then Cambodia has crossed a critical threshold of young democracy.

Kheang Un, is Assistant Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and an Adjunct Professor at the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University.

Editor’s note:

This is the sixth analysis of a series on media coverage on election related issues prepared by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute's program on Conflict Prevention in Cambodian Elections (COPCEL). COPCEL notes that the set of 15 newspapers it chose as part of its media monitoring project are all owned or sponsored by certain political parties, with the exception of the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, which are foreign owned. Consequently, reports and commentaries are biased toward a particular party. Bias notwithstanding, articles by these newspapers do reflect the trends of Cambodia’s political developments. 

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