C ompetitive politics? Or politics of comfort? The run-up to the next elections is
looking like a three year marathon. Jason Barber reports.
AT least three years out from the next general election, the political maneuvering
Party officials are already chalking out their campaign options, a "pre-arrangement"
between the coalition government partners is being mooted, and at least one new party
is set for launching.
A dummy-run for the "make or break" general election - scheduled for 1998
- should come a year earlier with the holding of Cambodia's first commune elections.
The critical issues of whether the electoral system should be changed, and who should
organize elections, are ripe for debate.
Government leaders including the co-Prime Ministers are believed to favor a first-past-the-post
majority constituency system for 1998 - but to continue to have coalition governments.
Cambodian People's Party leader Hun Sen, Funcinpec's Prince Norodom Ranariddh and
Ieng Mouly of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party have all recently spoken of sticking
together after the election.
Whether that would extend to striking a deal to campaign together in the election,
or at least not to vie too strongly against each other, is unclear.
So too is whether the parties' officials and rank-and-file would accept such a move.
Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh said last week that he disagreed
with people beginning to talk about an election "pre-arrangement."
"When I listen to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, [saying] that 'we are twins
for 10 years', it gives me a sense that perhaps this so-called election is a show,"
Sirivudh said of CPP and Funcinpec.
Sirivudh strongly supported having coalition governments, but said that was no reason
for Funcinpec not to try to win as many seats as possible.
"If you ask for $100, you may get $60. But if you ask for $60, you may get only
$30," he said metaphorically.
Sirivudh had already come up with his own campaign motto: "1998, two thirds
majority, one Prime Minister" - expressing his belief the election must be held
on schedule, Funcinpec should aim for a two-thirds majority and there should no longer
be two Prime Ministers.
"I am one of the generals in the fight for 1998, I don't want to demotivate
the troops. I prefer to say it is a real competition. Even if you have a coalition,
it's better to have a majority."
Sirivudh confirmed there were suggestions that CPP and Funcinpec would split up constituencies
between themselves, and not stand candidates in each other's areas.
"That's what I hear - that [where] CPP goes, we don't go."
Dr Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said CPP, Funcinpec
and BLDP were talking more openly about standing in a coalition.
"What does that mean? It means they have to have some sort of arrangement in
terms of candidates in constituencies."
He saw several possibilities, including that in constituencies where one party had
strong support, the others would field only second or third rate candidates.
But Mong Hay was not convinced the three parties could successfully hammer out such
"All the leaders seem to be getting on rather well, but down below there's quite
a lot of friction. There's no real integration [between parties]."
He believed that was one reason why the parties were considering such deals now,
leaving them enough time to plan to campaign "usually, separately" if necessary.
At the same time, the parties seemed to be focusing on solving internal problems,
to get them out of the way - and the memories of voters - long before polling day.
Meanwhile, some opposition forces were trying to gather momentum by building on their
current popular support and taking advantage of unhappiness within other parties.
Sam Rainsy, who has announced the imminent formation of a new party which he hopes
will attract disgruntled Funcinpec members, said last week that opposition parties
should be ready to use the same election tactics as government ones.
"I'm pretty sure that we will have to stand united to challenge the government,"
he said, when asked if opposition parties could arrange pre-election deals.
Mong Hay said the political jockeying on all sides was positive, as more people were
thinking about the election and fewer suggesting it could be delayed.
He believed 1998 would be "make or break" for Cambodia, to show the world
that "we are worthy of international support, that every penny spent was worth
The election had to be free and fair and its results accepted by all parties, because
"we have the Khmer Rouge, we can't afford to have other trouble."
He said a fair election was unlikely unless it was overseen by an "independent,
impartial, competent" electoral commission. He urged the government and parties
to agree to such a body, and then discuss its composition.
Also needed was a full public debate on the best electoral system for Cambodia.
Mong Hay, Sirivudh and Rainsy all agreed that government leaders were moving toward
the idea of replacing the proportional representation model introduced by the UN
with a first-past-the-post constituency system.
None of the three expressed a firm preference for any particular system, providing
whatever was chosen was fair and democratic.
Public debate on which electoral system is best for Cambodia will be kicked off by
a seminar later this month organized by the Ministry of Interior - currently responsible
for drafting electoral laws - and NGOs.
Ok Serei Sopheak, adviser to co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng (CPP), said the Oct
23-25 seminar would feature foreign experts discussing the pros and cons of various
Sopheak said the 1998 election should be held with the help and advice of foreign
experts and NGOs because "we have to be very careful in a country like Cambodia.
If the government does the job alone, everyone will accuse us of cheating."
He believed a national committee to coordinate and supervise the election would be
But the job of drafting an electoral law could remain with the Ministry of Interior
"electoral commission" of CPP and Funcinpec-appointed officials.
Many observers are looking toward local commune elections planned for 1997 - after
the Ministry of Interior said it would be logistically difficult to hold them in
1996 - for a sign of how the government and parties will approach the general election.
The local elections will provide the first chance to challenge the nationwide dominance
of commune officials appointed by the former communist State of Cambodia regime,
most of whom are now aligned to CPP.
Sirivudh said Funcinpec would contest the commune elections, but would give no details.
Rainsy told the Post his new party would also stand - providing the elections were
fair and democratic. He held open the prospect of a "boycott" if there
were restrictions on who could stand as candidates.
A draft law governing the local elections, prepared by the Ministry of Interior and
not made public, is believed to include some restrictions.
Mong Hay said he had heard that potential candidates would have to have signatures
of support from at least 10 percent of a commune before being able to stand.
But other elements of the draft law were more positive, including that votes would
be cast for individuals, not parties.
Ok Serei Sopheak said he believed that "political freedom for anyone who would
want to stand must be respected".
But he would not say whether the draft contained restrictions on candidates. He said
that after foreign and Cambodian experts were consulted, "we will see very clearly
what we have to keep and throw away from our original draft."
Both Mong Hay and Sopheak expected a good voter turn-out for the local elections,
expected to elect commune chiefs, deputies and secretaries throughout Cambodia.
"The way I speak to villagers in some provinces, they are frustrated, they want
some change again," said Sopheak.
"UNTAC [the 1993 general election] was like a meal for them but now, after the
meal, they are still hungry. I think they will respond well."