In August, Cambodian People Party (CPP) stalwart Chea Sim, who as Senate president has long remained out of the limelight, made a rare gesture toward the Fourth Estate: he opened his Phnom Penh villa to members of the media. At the lavish Choul Vassa ceremony hosted by Chea Sim, reporters sat side-by-side with ministers and oknhas to watch the 80-year-old and his family receive blessings from the country’s highest-ranking monks.
At the end of the ceremony, the shaky though not evidently unwell Chea Sim made his way to a plush chair and began handing out offerings to the attendees. The monks and nuns shuffled by and graciously accepted envelopes. Then came the laypeople, staff and poor, sampeahing as they passed. Finally, after everyone had gone, the journalists queued up one by one to receive their envelopes of cash.
Along with the invitation came an implicit statement.
Despite rumours that had been swirling in the media for a week that the perennially ill CPP president had passed away, Chea Sim was not going anywhere.
It was hardly surprising the rumours of Chea Sim’s death garnered so much attention. Indeed, in a year of two elections, it was without a doubt the sideshow that made for the biggest political stories of 2012.
After years of engaging in a maddening dance, the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties finally merged in July, paving the way for a much-needed united front come next year’s National Election.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh was pushed from his eponymous party, which rapidly changed name, president and leadership, only to become subsumed under the royalist Funcinpec just a day after the official dissolution.
Within the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party, meanwhile, the rumblings were far quieter, but they too surfaced on occasion. Spilling over from the previous year, those closest to Chea Sim continued to face retribution for a raft of embezzlement crimes.
The year opened with a highly predictable Senate race, criticised from the get-go by election monitors who have long called for reform of the process. On January 29, in a non-universal election open only to commune councillors, the vote fell exactly along party lines, with 46 seats going to the CPP and 11 to the SRP.
While accusations of vote buying and allegiance swearing were rife, the strongest criticisms continued to be directed at the activity itself. With more than $500,000 expended on an election with a known outcome, many have questioned the point, while monitors once again urged for constitutional amendments that would open voting to a broader populace. As in previous mandates, however, such calls fell on deaf ears, as did calls to altogether reform the Senate, which serves as little more than a rubber stamp.
If Senate elections were de rigueur, however, the commune council elections held four months later proved anything but. Yes, the CPP retained its high margin of victory, winning 97 per cent of the country’s commune chief positions. Yes, its seats increased, as they have ever since the first vote in 2002. But despite the foreseeable outcomes, there were hints change was afoot.
Running for the first time, the opposition HRP, did far better than anyone would have predicted, winning control of 18 communes and gaining 800 seats overall. The SRP, though it dipped from 2,660 seats to 2,155 and lost six of their 28 commune chief positions, saw significant gains in previous CPP strongholds where land disputes had grown rampant in recent years.
The CPP’s royalist coalition partners both suffered heavy blows, with Funcinpec dropping by more than a third to just 151 seats and the NRP winning less than an eighth of what they held in the previous vote, winding up with only 52 seats.
Meanwhile, brushed over by a ruling party keen to highlight its victory, the voter turnout figure was pounced upon by political analysts and opposition members alike. In a country where startlingly high turnout is a given in every election, only 64 per cent turned up at the polls, compared with 68 per cent in 2007 and 87 per cent in the first, 2002, election, according to COMFREL figures.
Many pegged the dropping turnout figure as an effective blow to the ruling party – a statement that voters either actively wished not to vote for the CPP, or felt too uncomfortable to cast their vote for an opponent.
Echoing the conclusion of many monitors, UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi listed the decrease among his key concerns in a report penned shortly after the election.
“There are several reasons why an individual may choose to opt out of participating in the electoral process. In many cases, however, people do not choose to abandon their right to vote, but face such significant barriers that they are effectively disenfranchised,” he wrote.
For longtime observers, the 2012 commune election proved a complex one to parse. Unlike in previous elections, there were few overt acts of political violence or intimidation. But the vote came halfway through an intensely uneasy year, in which large-scale clampdowns by the authorities had grown endemic.
Pushed to the fore, land issues exploded into violence at an altogether new frequency and scale; with a number of headline-grabbing crackdowns coming just weeks before the elections sending a message, some believe, to would-be opposition activists.
It is perhaps that very atmosphere of increasing unrest among both the populace and the government that forced the opposition parties’ hand. After years of bickering and in-fighting that saw proposed mergers fail repeatedly, to the surprise of many, the SRP and HRP in July managed to broker a successful union.
Proposed shortly before the election, the idea of a merger rapidly gained momentum after the polls closed. Though neither party alone made monumental inroads (the SRP lost seats while the HRP’s wins remained relatively minimal), it quickly became clear that a combined force would have made an admirable show, taking 30 per cent of the vote.
In July, HRP President Kem Sokha and SRP President Sam Rainsy met in the Philippines to iron out the details, and by early October the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party had been successfully registered with the Ministry of Interior and begun rolling out its party platform.
While CPP officials have pooh-poohed the merger, insisting it won’t make a dent on the party’s steady gains, analysts have been sanguine.
Meanwhile, buttressed by increasingly high-level support from the international community, the self-exiled Rainsy has grown more confident by the day that the new party will prove successful and that he will be permitted to return to Cambodia prior to the election.
Rainsy, who lives in Paris and faces 12 years in prison on forgery and destruction of property charges, popularly dismissed as politically motivated, can now likely count among his supporters US President Barack Obama.
During a closed-door bilateral meeting that took place in November on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit, Obama highlighted the need for “opposition parties to be able to operate”, according to the White House.
But while the opposition merger was widely lauded, the other major party merger was less of a coup for those involved.
After struggling to maintain relevance and suffering a major blow in the election, the Norodom Ranariddh Party succumbed in August to intense infighting that concluded with Prince Ranariddh virtually ousted from the party and the resignations of a number of key members.
After months of mounting acrimony over the direction the party had been taken, Prince Ranariddh was forced to step down and his close associates made to follow suit. The NRP was then rapidly remade as the Nationalist Party and, almost as quickly, subsumed by Funcinpec – with whom lower-level party officials had been negotiating for months.
Whether the merger will prove to be the ticket to revive the badly suffering royalists remains to be seen. But if the past year of politics has proved anything, it’s that once the sideshow gets going, stasis can’t be taken for granted.
To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at [email protected]