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Elections should be about hope, not fear

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People search for their names on the NEC voter lists in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune in January this year. Pha Lina

Elections should be about hope, not fear

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent comments that Cambodia risks sliding back into civil war should the CPP see significant losses during the upcoming commune council elections do little favour to Cambodia’s democratic processes and institutions. Instead they threaten a democratic backsliding and a return to a time that not many of us wish to see again.

No one can deny that Cambodia has had a difficult history. It wasn’t so long ago that it was unthinkable that millions of people would be able to turn out to vote in free and fair elections. For many among us, war is not such a distant memory. Yet for many more of us, the Cambodia of today is a democratic and peaceful one, far from perfect but full of promises and hopes for the future.

Over the past several decades, the people of Cambodia have worked day in and day out to contribute positively to the country’s economic growth, to its stability and to peace. Yet as we approach election day in just a few weeks, it seems the ruling party is more intent on spreading fear and threatening people into voting them into power yet again, rather than on recognising these achievements and – most importantly – believing in people’s ability to make the right decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a position today where we must fight harder than ever to protect our right to vote freely, without fear or intimidation. The upcoming commune council elections in Cambodia will be a significant moment for the 8 million registered voters who are waiting to cast their votes and to democratically elect their next local representatives. But earlier this week, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to “protect the achievements of his party” and to crack down on any election-related protests. He has, yet again, threatened that civil war could return to Cambodia if the CPP were to lose.

This rhetoric is nothing new; we have seen this sort of language from the prime minister and his allies time and time again, as they have sought to undermine the opposition in the eyes of the electorate. The violence evoked in those speeches has even been made reality, when, for instance, two of my colleagues were brutally attacked by pro-CPP protesters outside of the National Assembly in October 2015.

Yet the CPP seems to forget that this is no longer the Cambodia of yesteryear. As the country has grown economically, so has people’s awareness of their rights and of the role of the government in protecting and promoting them. Throughout the country, people have repeatedly made it clear that they will no longer stand by in silence as their rights are trampled upon in the name of development and under the pretext of avoiding civil war.

New politics are needed for this new Cambodia. Cambodia has waited long enough for a government that will respect the rights of all of its people – and this election season should be approached by all stakeholders as the start of a new era in Cambodian politics.

The only way to show to the electorate that a political party is credible and serious about progress, development and peace, is by setting forth concrete policy proposals and party platforms. We, as politicians, need to make sure all people are heard and that we listen to their concerns. Anything short of that belies the concept of democracy.

And even more importantly as we approach election day, parties and politicians should be focusing on messages of hope – on supporting and encouraging people to go out and vote – regardless of who they will end up voting for. In contrast, messages of war and of violence are not only wrong but a blatant campaign strategy to win and to remain in power at all costs; these messages are not about the people who politicians are meant to represent.

Free and fair elections are not only a right but also integral to the process of building and strengthening a nascent democracy, as is Cambodia. Spreading fear, on the other hand, runs counter to these goals. Threatening war and instability goes against the very essence of democracy, which is built upon the assumption that voters should be entrusted to vote for the right people to lead the country.

Fostering fear among the population is not – and never will be – the solution for protecting peace; it is only a sign of weakness. Although it will ultimately be up to the voters to decide who they want in power on June 4, we all must commit to fighting relentlessly to protect our democracy and our human rights.

Mu Sochua is a member of the National Assembly, representing Battambang province.

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