Cambodia goes to the polls on July 27 for a national election that is likely to see the Cambodian People’s Party abandon a long-standing coalition government arrangement and take total control of government, but analysts remain upbeat that a single-party government will not deter democracy in the long-term.
“The CPP will definitely win an outright majority,” said Benny Widyono, a former representative of the UN secretary general in Cambodia and author of Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia.
“But the possibilities are there for change. I don’t think Cambodia will go back to a monolithic communist model,” Widyono added.
According to Widyono, the experience of other Asian nations such as Japan and India – both of which were effectively one-party states for decades but now boast viable, vocal opposition parties – should give Cambodian democrats hope, despite the obvious gulf between the ruling CPP and its challengers.
The National Assembly in 2006 pushed through a constitutional amendment replacing Cambodia’s two-thirds majority electoral system with a simple majority system that is expected to give the CPP, which controls 73 of the assembly’s 123 seats, the ability to rule alone.
While a single party state could “narrow democracy” in the short-term, it could in the long-run lead to a stronger opposition, said Koul Panha, executive director of the election monitoring group Comfrel.
“It could lead to a more effective implementation of reforms and respect for democracy,” he told the Post. “There is some risk of narrowing democracy, but I can see the opposition improving as well.”
Others said that single-party rule will in reality weaken the CPP over time, as it grows too complacent with its political dominance, opening the door to a stronger opposition.
“There may be problems of over-confidence on the part of the CPP once it no longer has to look over its shoulder at opponents,” said David Chandler, an author and leading scholar of Cambodian history.
Rising political awareness in the rural areas – historically CPP bastions – could also impact on the ruling party’s control, said Widyono.
There may be
problems of over-confidence on the part of the CPP once it no longer has to look over its shoulder at opponents.
Following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the CPP – then known as the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea – had 11 years to entrench itself at the grassroots level before the arrival of UNTAC, a historical advantage that still gives it an edge over today’s opposition parties.
“In 1979, you had Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim in charge, and now you have the same trio,” Widyono said. “It’s amazing that despite the UN intervention and the close involvement of the international community, Cambodia is still at square one.”
But the seeds for change lie in the countryside, he said. “The villages are much more vibrant now. They are not as docile as they once were. Because of decentralisation, the rural areas now have more power.”
That, however, is in the future, he acknowledged, saying that Cambodia’s rising economy and a rash of defections from the opposition would greatly bolster the CPP in this election.
“This election is all about economics, and now that the economy is vibrant, at the village level especially, it will favour the incumbents,” he said.
Also working to the CPP’s advantage is the disappearance of the royalist parties as a significant political force, Widyono said.
Funcinpec, the CPP’s coalition government partner since the UN-brokered elections in 1993, has suffered repeated internal upheavals during the past two years, including the ouster of its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who went on to form his own self-named party.
But the royalists remain in disarray, while Ranariddh sits in self-imposed exile after a number of legal cases against him, including a fraud conviction and pending adultery charges, chased him from Cambodia.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think this will be the end of Funcinpec, and I think the Norodom Ranariddh Party will be ineffective,” Widyono said. “From now on there will be just two main parties: the [Sam Rainsy Party] and CPP.”
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said that his party would try to form a coalition in the event of an SRP victory on Sunday. “We welcome all parties to rule in coalition with us because we need their help and their resources, but we will rule alone if they refuse to work with us,” Yim Sovann said.
Minister of Information and CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith also said his party would be willing to consider coalition partners, saying: “We plan to rule in coalition with other parties when we win, but only if they want to join us. We really need the human resources of a coalition, because it is very difficult to develop the country when ruling alone.”
A number of civil society groups, meanwhile, were continuing to raise questions about whether the upcoming elections could be considered free and fair given the overwhelming media dominance of the CPP, accusations of intimidation and the allegedly politically motivated killing this month of Moneaksekar Khmer journalist Khim Sambo.
The US Embassy has also condemned the “chilling effect on the media” of acts such as Khim Sambo’s killing, which “risks undermining citizens’ confidence in their ability to fully participate in the electoral process in safety.”
“Political violence, particularly against non-ruling party activists at both the national and the local level, has threatened the freedom to fully participate in the upcoming elections,” said the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.