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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Real test still to come for exuberant Sam Rainsy Party

Real test still to come for exuberant Sam Rainsy Party

Sam Rainsy is exuberant these days. At the frequent post-election meetings, he almost

sounded as if the commune election results had brought him a notch closer to power

at the center.

His exuberance however belies the real gains that his self-named opposition party

has made at the hustings: a little over 2 percent. In terms of communes, the party

managed to install its chiefs in eleven of the 1,621 communes, six in Phnom Penh

alone. Though modest, the achievement is, however, still better than Funcinpec's

ten communes.

"The commune elections have changed Cambodia's political landscape forever,"

he told the Post when asked to comment on the preliminary results. "The SRP

has emerged as the only serious alternative to the CPP. From being perceived as a

one-man party, we are now being taken more seriously as a political force,"

he said.

However the SRP's increase over 1998 - from 14.3 percent to 16.8 percent based on

preliminary results - is nothing as to the CPP's gain, which climbed 20 percent.

If the two parties maintain the same pace for the 2003 general election, much of

the SRP's gain could prove insignificant against the ruling party.

The SRP plans to counter that by preying on Funcinpec rank and file currently feeling

dejected due to the party's poor showing. In a call issued last week, he said all

the "democratic forces" in Cambodia should join hands to present a united

and stronger opposition to defeat the CPP in the next elections.

The CPP's victory, he said, was fragile since the promises that they made "like

giving a bag of rice each month" for the next five years in some villages, would

not be kept.

"Moreover, we will try to mobilize the uninterested voters to register and come

out of their homes to vote next time," he added. Funcinpec said it planned to

do the same.

Rainsy claimed privately February 12 that some Funcinpec grassroots supporters had

joined his "winning" bandwagon and said many more were likely to follow.

Political analysts said that the party, unlike Funcinpec, at least had distinct policies.

Aggressive campaigning could continue to hold it in good stead. When asked what distinguished

the SRP from the other parties, Dr Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy

said:

"From its leader to the political platform, the SRP had a very distinctive identity

and this distinctiveness has been known to the electorate for many years.

"The activities of its president and other colleagues have also been visible

wherever people ran into trouble, especially factory workers in Phnom Penh and its

outskirts," he said. "Rainsy has been very vocal against corruption. That's

why many Cambodians pinned their hopes on his party."

Observers said that what seemed to be holding the SRP back from replacing Funcinpec

as the second political force in Cambodia was the fact that not all voters who were

anti-CPP and indifferent toward Funcinpec voted for the SRP.

To illustrate that they pointed out that 15 percent of the vote in 1998 went to smaller

parties, which were presumably against both the CPP and Funcinpec but were unsure

of the SRP.

"Had the SRP been the only alternative to the other two, a large chunk of those

voters would have voted for the SRP this time [since] there was no other major player

in the elections," an observer said. These voters had apparently ended up behaving

as fence-sitters, voting for the CPP.

Rainsy said these and many others voted for their stomach and out of security concerns,

rather than voting with their conscience. In any case, the commune elections, he

added, were seen as a minor event by people particularly in the urban areas.

"They are waiting for the 2003 [general election] to assert their choice since

they are keen for a change at the national level, but do not really mind the status

quo at the local level," he said, suggesting that the same voters might vote

differently in local and national elections. In cities, many people neither knew

nor had any interest in commune councils or commune chiefs.

The SRP still suffers from lack of organizational skills, which were no match for

the CPP's well-entrenched cell system, as well as a shortage of suitable candidates.

Another observer pointed out that the SRP was far too dependent on only one or two

personalities.

"God forbid, if one day Rainsy disappears from the political scene, the party

would probably collapse like a house of cards," he said.

Rainsy dismissed such suggestions and said there were many leaders at all levels

who were prepared to contest the election, and "that in the face of killings,

threats, intimidation and vote buying activities". He said it proved it was

not just his charisma, but reflected a genuine will for change.

In eleven communes at least the SRP has now been given a chance to put its policies

into action. And that could affect the measure of its future success.

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