Human Rights Party president Kem Sokha (2nd L), acting SRP president Kong Korm (C) and SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua (R) attend a meeting of the newly formed Democratic Movement for National Rescue party in Phnom Penh on Monday. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post
The announcement last week from Manila that Cambodia’s two largest opposition parties – the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP) – are to merge under the banner of the Democratic Movement for National Rescue (DMNR) represents a great sign of hope for Cambodia’s beleaguered democracy.
For the first time in two decades, the Cambodian electorate may be given the option of a genuine and viable alternative to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
However, to attract Cambodia’s disenchanted electorate back to the polling booth – turnout for this year’s commune elections was just 60 per cent compared to 87 per cent ten years ago – and to maximise its chances of winning next year’s general elections, the DMNR should take the following steps:
Put party policy before personalities: Political parties in Cambodia have traditionally been projections of party leaders – not only Hun Sen’s CPP but also Kem Sokha’s HRP and Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party. Policy issues are relegated, with voters encouraged to vote for individual personalities rather than the parties that offer them the most.
The merger announcement indicates that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha – president and vice president of the DMNR respectively – are willing to let their personalities take a back seat to the profile of the new party. It is essential, however, that the DMNR can fulfil this profile.
It must ensure that its members take central stage and are allowed to help determine strategy and policy.
Move to the middle: In order to present itself as a viable alternative to the incumbent CPP, the DMNR must reach out to a broader section of society than the SRP’s and HRP’s current support base. While the DMNR should maintain the social goals of those parties, including reform of the country’s land sector, it should also expand its horizons and promote policies that will attract the business vote.
One way of doing this is to propose policies that appeal to small and medium-sized businesses: a pro-business approach which counters the CPP’s elitist policies that favour a small number of well-connected tycoons.
De-radicalise: The marginalisation of the opposition over the past 20 years has given rise to a tendency to promote radical causes to attract voters’ attention and score cheap political points. The most obvious example is the tendency of some opposition members – most famously Sam Rainsy – to chastise the CPP’s links to Vietnam and condemn the loss of Cambodian land to Vietnam.
While such reactions may have some validity, they have not generally been constructive or discerning. If the DMNR is to be truly democratic, it must steer clear of anti-Vietnamese sentiments.
Engage Cambodia’s youth: The CPP has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years. The party leadership should be congratulated for its role in defeating the Khmer Rouge and for bringing peace and stability to this country. Rather than dwelling on these points, however, it is time for Cambodian politics – and the DMNR – to move on, reach out to the youth, so many of whom were born after the terrors of the 1970s and to whom the CPP’s achievements hold less resonance, and offer a vision whereby all sectors of society have a role to play and dreams to realise.
Promote gender equality: The CPP is now significantly outperforming the SRP and HRP in the area of female representation in politics. In the recent commune elections, 21 per cent of the CPP’s elected candidates were women, while only 11 per cent of the SRP’s elected candidates were women.
The HRP brought up the rear with a shameful 1.5 per cent. If the DMNR is to take office, it will do so riding the crest of a wave of hope and excitement. No such hope and excitement can exist if the new party is just another old boys’ club with the same backward patriarchal attitudes that are manifested in the SRP and HRP.
The DMNR must overcome these shortcomings and look to further gender balance in politics. It must listen to female perspectives from around the country and empower women to run as candidates in next year’s general elections.
Decreases in voter turnout in recent years have been testament to the growing conviction among the electorate that election results are a foregone conclusion and that real change can never really come from the ballot box.
For too long, the opposition has offered little more than a stamp of legitimacy for elections that they never really stood any chance of winning. After years of talks, the merger of the opposition parties represents the most exciting event in Cambodian politics for a long time.
These two erstwhile opponents must now seize their opportunity and offer the Cambodian voter – and the youth in particular – a viable alternative to the entrenched CPP for the first time in 20 years.
Ou Virak is President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights