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Elections '98: Mid-campaign report

Elections '98: Mid-campaign report

WHO'S aligned with who - rather than struggles over any clearly defined ideology

- has been the name of the game in Cambodian politics for as long as many people

can remember. And the last two weeks have only borne witness to how intense the shake-out

in allegiances will be in the seemingly endless run-up to the next national elections

and how fluid and/or flexible are some of those very same politically-motivated linkages.


Thus, with the completion of the CPP's Extraordinary General Assembly, the simultaneous

announcement of the establishment of the National United Front (FUN) and the attendant

declarations of support by smaller parties, political pundits of both domestic and

foreign stripes have been scrambling to sort out what's been happening behind the

scenes and what it all means.

Alliances in the Kingdom have, for the most part, always been a function of patronalism

and personalism - of who can take care of whom, who knows or has access to whom,

and how strong and of what duration are the connections. Without question, the ability

of any patron to pass on rewards and benefits to those down the chain of loyalties

has been, and will continue to be, the key factor in determining any future political/military


For the Khmer politician, all of the above is second nature, and a well-accepted

one at that. Its often the casual foreign observer that gets confused, lost in a

tangled attempt to search for some "White Knight" who, in theory, could

miraculously take charge of the Kingdom - or a ministry or project - and rectify

neatly-prescribed ills overnight.

The issue of alliances has come to the fore for an obvious reason: upcoming national

elections scheduled for 1998 are a zero-sum game. As mandated in the Constitution

the Kingdom will only have one Prime Minister and the bifurcate executive branch

which has run the government for the last three years will be a thing of the past.

In effect, the campaign for '98 began in '93 when the current coalition was cobbled

together, and much of the friction within the government since then stems from the

struggle between CPP and Funcinpec to hoard or gain power. Each party knew well that

it had five years in which to make its mark, take care of its people in ways which

would justify continued loyalty to leadership, and maintain or secure the resources

to do so, as well as obtain those funds needed to expand bases of support. In short,

the race was on, just moments after the Constitution was promulgated on October 23,


So what of the recent unions, pacts and party pronouncements given the possibility

of commune elections this year and less than two years left before national polls

in 1998?

For starters, most analysts see little likelihood that commune elections will be

held this year. Technically, election and party laws would have to be passed, identification

cards should be issued and the Constitutional Council and Supreme Council of Magistry

should be established. Progress on passing the laws has been slow and the establishment

of latter two administrative institutions has been stalled for political reasons.

As well, foreign experts advising the government have recommended that the commune

elections be postponed and held at the same time as national elections for a variety

of reasons.

In any event, the CPP Congress and the FUNCINPEC-led effort to set up FUN are viewed

as efforts to strengthen the respective parties in the advent of any impending election.

By more than doubling the size of its central committee, the CPP has reached out

to key supporters in an effort to increase party solidarity, reward party faithful

and strengthen its ability to undertake any election-related activities. As well,

the Congress was a vehicle for resolving key internal policy, structural and control

issues so that the party can present a unified stance during any electoral challenge.

Furthermore, the Congress should have put to rest any doubts about the possibility

of a split within the CPP. In spite of rumors and much armchair speculation on the

nature of the relationship between the so-called "Chea Sim/Sar Kheng" and

"Hun Sen" factions of the CPP, most serious analysts believe the chances

of internal differences within the party erupting into an open rift are zero.

Nevertheless, while the CPP is viewed as stable, its support among the public at

large remains in question. The Kingdom's predominantly rural population regularly

complains privately about the chronic abuse of power by those in positions to wield

it - police, public officials and the military. And as most Cambodians know well,

the faces of those in charge at the provincial or district level have not changed

since the '93 elections.

Support for Funcinpec since the Untac-led plebiscite has been seriously eroded. Expectations

- even if unrealistic - that the party that won the elections would bring about sweeping

changes have not been met. Inconsistent leadership, internal party squabbles - including

the sacking of Sam Rainsy and the resignation and subsequent exile of Prince Sirivudh

- and a flimsy party structure have all contributed to serious doubts about the Royalists'

ability to govern effectively.

Prince Ranariddh's decision to establish FUN is seen as a necessary condition for

any chance to retain power. Analysts generally concede that no single party can defeat

the CPP, but questions remain about the ability of a Funcinpec-KNP-BLDP (Son Sann)

coalition to function effectively. For example, will Funcinpec allow Rainsy to campaign

on a strong anticorruption platform, when some Funcinpec ministers are viewed as

having engorged themselves at public expense in the last three years? These and other

questions remain unresolved.

Sam Rainsy's KNP is the one party that has made substantial gains in recruiting new

members since its establishment over a year ago. However, how much support exists

beyond urban areas is open to debate.

Rainsy's cleverest move has been to take the lead in supporting factory worker's

demands for improved pay and workplace conditions. Lacking substantial financial

resources, Rainsy has basically succeeded in engendering increased support for his

party while making overseas factory owners pay for it. But his party structure remains

undeveloped and it remains to be seen if he will be allowed both to set up a national

network of party offices and secure access to radio and TV for campaign purposes.

On a broader level, the question of the human resources and political loyalties required

to run the nation is perhaps the most daunting for FUN. The question isn't so much:

"If FUN wins the '98 elections will the CPP give up power?" Its rather:

"If FUN wins, will the thousands of CPP-aligned bureaucrats throughout the country

switch allegiances and work for FUN?"

The CPP is after all, according to one observer, "a well-oiled, political machine."

They've had 17 years to develop a functional party structure and patronal linkages

or party-related IOUs running up and down the system exist throughout the Kingdom.

This is the same hurdle that Funcinpec faced in 1993, and its success in dealing

with the problem has been minimal.

So, will the 1998 elections see a repeat of 1993? This is the one question to which

no firm answers can be found, but as the campaign heats up some analysts have started

to count the guns and try and figure out who is aligned to who.

One thumbnail sketch of military loyalties gives the CPP 23,000 troops, Funcinpec

6,000 and KP (with Funcinpec tendencies) at 9,000. Added to this are RCAF support

units of 31,000 with loyalties split. The General Staff accounts for another 15,000

although which party is favored remains unclear. Provincial units total 44,000 with

a split at 56 percent for the CPP and former ANKI and KP the remaining 44 percent.

The "Breakaway Units" are pegged at: Pro-Funcinpec 42 percent and pro-CPP

58 percent, with numbers totalling 19,132 which includes real or imagined underground

spies who defected.

Inspite of the morbidity of such thoughts as the elections move ever closer, there

may be a silver lining. As one observer noted: "The only saving grace is that

everyone is tired of fighting."


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