Prime Minister Hun Sen greets Sam Rainsy Party leader Sam Rainsy for the first time since Rainsy returned from self-imposed exile on February 10, 2006.
Summing up Cambodian politics in the wake of 2006 requires a certain amount of arithmetic.
It was the year that the two-thirds National Assembly majority needed to form a government
was changed to a formula of 50 plus 1.
It was a 365-day span in which longstanding coalition partner Funcinpec was divided
- and subsequently multiplied - into three separate royalist parties with almost
zero political clout.
It was also the year that opposition leader Sam Rainsy singled himself out as the
prime political challenger, and the time when the longstanding three-party equation
simply stopped adding up.
After doing the math, 2006 equaled a decisive, albeit controversial, victory for
the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) as it strengthened control over all branches
of government, silenced its most salient social critics and broadened its power base
ahead of the April's commune elections.
"We have seen this year that the most dominating force in the government, the
Senate and the National Assembly is the CPP," said Koul Panha, executive director
of election watchdog NGO Comfrel. "Therefore, the CPP is now more powerful,
but any checks and balances have been weakened."
Along the way, the ruling party broached a compromise agreement with its opposition
and brought home, on December 21, the fugitive former police chief who some believe
may have represented the party's biggest threat.
" was the year that the CPP succeeded in taking control in running the
country as they please, reminiscent of their rule in the 1980s," said Sam Rainsy
Party parliamentarian Son Chhay. "Particularly their control of every government
institution - from the police to the judiciary to all levels of administration."
Other analysts have said the CPP simply evolved its tactics over the past year, and
has altered its famously heavy-handed political approach.
"The CPP is learning. They're getting much smarter in terms of campaigning and
speaking the language of democrats," said Ou Virak, general-secretary of the
Alliance for Freedom of Expression. "Now the CPP is learning the language, so
it will be more difficult for the opposition and smaller parties to offer something
Thun Saray, director of human rights NGO Adhoc, told the Post that political tension
eased over the course of 2006, but the reason was the CPP's choice of targets.
"In 2005 the conflict was between the Prime Minister and the opposition and
some civil society leaders and human rights activists," Saray said on December
28. "But in 2006 the conflict was between the CPP and its coalition party. The
division of Funcinpec meant less tension with opposition lawmakers and activists."
According to Saray, pressure from rights groups and the diplomatic community was
much greater when, just one year ago, four civil society leaders were jailed for
defaming Hun Sen.
"The [disputes] with Prince Ranariddh drew much less attention," he said.
"Another factor is that the opposition, I think, has changed their approach
to one of working together with the CPP. They don't confront as much as in previous
years. For me I am concerned about the imbalance between the CPP and non-CPP parties.
There are no checks and balances."
Even Rainsy, whose return on February 10 from self-imposed exile signaled a softening
of the ruling party's hard-line stance, admits to a warmer relationship with Hun
"These days it's modus vivendi: we tolerate each other," Rainsy said. "We
don't like each other but we tolerate each other. We've agreed to disagree on issues
and the ways to resolve issues facing the nation."
Saray is concerned that such compromise may weaken the opposition.
"The problem is how long the SRP can maintain popularity with their own people
using this new approach," he said. "Before there was some room for the
opposition and the Funcinpec party to work in alliance as a counterweight to the
CPP. Now there is no room."
Government spokesman and CPP Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said a booming
economy, a developmental largess program and rising standards of living explain the
popularity and confidence of the ruling party.
"The CPP will absolutely win the elections," he told the Post on December
28. "The biggest impact on the political situation is the economy, and the economy
has increased. The per capita income has increased to $500 compared to 1993 when
it was $190."
Kanharith also said rice exports are on the rise, inflation was less than 5 percent
and that the CPP has spent at least one million riel in each of the country's communes
on infrastructure projects such as irrigation, water pumps and construction.
"The big change in the political situation is the from the two-thirds majority
to 50-plus-1," Kanharith said. "We know now there will be no political
deadlock after the elections and we know all political parties will participate in
the coming elections. Therefore, the situation is all good."
Monh Saphan, Funcinpec parliamentarian, agreed that the simple majority law was significant,
but was less enthusiastic about his party's future.
"The amendment to the Constitution was the biggest political event of 2006,"
Saphan said. "The new formula needed to form a government will make all political
parties consider making serious challenges to take control of government. The royalist
party still survives. As long as there is Funcinpec there will be a royalist movement."
Rainsy, whose SRP has benefited the most from the splintering of Funincpec, disagrees.
Characteristically, he's bullish about his party's future, and some observers concur.
"The two big factors in 2006 were the disintegration of the royalist movement
- they will totally disappear from politics - and the emergence of the SRP as the
only challenger to the CPP," he said. "You will see this clearly in 2007
and decisively in 2008. Last year was a turning point. You don't see the result yet,
but it is a major change in the political landscape."
Comfrel's Panha believes there has been much reform and improvement in SRP, but said
he'll wait to see what happens next.
"I can see improvement in the SRP. They're doing quite well at the local level,
its' amazing from an opposition party with limited finances," said Virak. "I'm
interested in how the SRP is going to handle the long arms of the ruling party. The
CPP has used its divide and conquer tactics repeatedly. How are they going to handle
that? Will they stick to their principles without being blackmailed?"
But Kanharith says the CPP is not worried about the emergence of any opponent‚ but
with a caveat.
"We welcome a serious challenge from the SRP. As Samdech Hun Sen has said, we
would rather have a strong enemy than to have a weak friend," he said. "But
the SRP must be fair in competition. Their party always criticizes the CPP as being
a Vietnamese party. We are all Khmer, why don't we just love each other?"
According to Virak, who's assessment of 2006 may come the closest to the mark, the
more Cambodian politics change, the more they remain the same.
"This has been very an interesting year. Lots of games and dirty politics, lots
of ups and downs with the opposition and troubles with Funcinpec," said Virak.
"It's been quite interesting to see how much of a role the CPP plays in the
internal workings of other parties. It appears that Hun Sen was in full control of
the fortunes of Funcinpec, and now it appears he has some role in the Sam Rainsy
Party as well. It just goes to show: politics are still politics and there are lots
of dirty things going on. But now it's harder to tell who is clean and who is dirty."