This has not been a good year at all for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party though it has turned out to be much better than expected for the dominant Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen and its coalition partner in government, the royalist Funcinpec, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Meanwhile, newly crowned King Norodom Sihamoni manifested a regal decorum and a quiet charm that quickly endeared him especially to the common folk - "the little people" as his father, ex-King Sihanouk, was wont fondly to refer to them.
Hun Sen, Ranariddh and Rainsy have, over the years, all played center stage with varying degrees of success and failure. In the process they have raised debilitating politicking and disruptive one-up-manship into a fine art.
Notwithstanding this, there has been a gradual maturing of the political styles in the past year. Old-fashioned politicians who were rewarded for past services are being slowly replaced by more educated and competent young politicians and technocrats who are able to address complex challenges and relate equally well to the increasing numbers of potentially troublesome unemployed youths moving to the cities and towns.
This evolving change in the political party scene has gone largely unnoticed as all focus has been on the main players. Not surprisingly, despite the infusion of the new blood, the infighting, the factionalism and the one-upmanship of Cambodian politics continue.
Looking back at 2005, King Sihamoni has undoubtedly emerged as the best-loved figure, with Hun Sen clearly the strongest of the leaders while Ranariddh has surprised his detractors as a deft survivor and a practical politician.
Rainsy is indisputably the main loser. This was sealed on December 22 when a Cambodian court found him guilty on two counts of criminal defamation and sentenced him in absentia to 18 months in prison for remarks he made against Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Rainsy, who has been in self-exile in Paris following the removal of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution in February, refused to attend the trial.
Rainsy was alleged to have accused Hun Sen of being involved in a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally that resulted in 19 deaths. He was also alleged to have accused Ranariddh of having accepted substantial bribes from the CPP as an inducement for Funcinpec to join the government.
Rainsy has termed the judicial decision farcical and repeated his allegation that the Cambodian courts are not independent. The US State Department expressed concern at what it termed was the continuing deterioration of democratic principles such as free speech.
Likewise, Rainsy's friends overseas, including human rights organizations, have come out in his support, but back home where the votes count, his glamour is gone and his party is steadily losing credibility.
Some suggest that while Rainsy's extended stay outside the country had given unprecedented elbow room for other aspirants in his tightly-run party, no clear alternative leader has emerged. With the latest court ruling, Rainsy will continue to remain outside with limited options. Some supporters have suggested a party-in-exile leading to a government-in-exile!
Meanwhile, Rainsy has quickly called for a pardon from the King, an act which will return him to public life in Phnom Penh. Already his friends and supporters, especially the anti-Hun Sen Cambodian diaspora in the US and France, are picking up this call and flooding internet newsgroups with similar demands to the King.
A couple of months ago, there was a similar flood of appeals by almost the same groups for the King not to sign a supplementary border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam. The young King was under tremendous pressure for weeks, even when it was clear to many that his hands were tied as a constitutional monarch. Sihamoni could have, as some suggested, chosen the easy way out and gone on a holiday, leaving it to the acting Head of State to sign the bill into law. In the event Sihamoni boldly chose to stay and signed the bill knowing that it would upset some people.
Once again, the pressure is building up - this time for Sihamoni to pardon Rainsy and others and, once again, observers believe that Sihamoni will do the right thing.
The pressure is much less these days on Hun Sen. At the recent annual CPP congress, he was named the undisputed prime-ministerial candidate in the 2008 election, a far cry from the situation before the last election when the confirmation was not so readily forthcoming until much nearer the polls. In addition, many observers are convinced that the enlarged CPP Central Committee, from 153 to 268 members, has many of Hun Sen's men.
Hun Sen is clearly in charge, and this is not at all surprising given that he has done well both as a clear-minded and resolute Prime Minister and as a party strategist.
Ranariddh is the luckiest. In the last decade his party's fortunes have gone from bad to worse and many had written it off after the last election. His joining the government has given him a lifeline and he knows it. The subsequent warming-up of personal relations between him and Hun Sen, though it has not percolated all the way down to the provincial structures, has been a great boost for Funcinpec and generally good for the country.
What started off as an uncertain year for Cambodia is ending better than expected. The IMF has just announced that it will provide 100 percent of debt relief, amounting to approximately US$82 million, incurred by Cambodia to the IMF before January 1, 2005. The IMF noted that Cambodia had qualified for the debt relief because "of its overall satisfactory recent macroeconomic performance, progress in poverty reduction, and improvements in public expenditure management."
The IMF further noted that since 1999, Cambodia had enjoyed robust economic expansion, with annual growth rates averaging over 7 percent with inflation under control and with improving public administration, in particular public expenditure management.
While that is a good way to end the year, the new year will bring varied and complex challenges, the major ones being the need to further strengthen its institutions and to ensure that good governance is firmly rooted in the country. This calls especially for a determined and comprehensive attempt at curbing corruption and dismantling the equally deeply entrenched patronage system.
It is now for Hun Sen to focus on and to promote the younger generation of technocrats and politicians to address these challenges. This will take some time. But what is stake is not just Hun Sen's credibility and his place in history: Cambodia's viability is also at stake. No one wants it to be a failed state.
* Verghese Mathews, a former Ambassador to Cambodia, is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and may be reached at [email protected]