Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Funcinpec reflects on election debacle

Funcinpec reflects on election debacle

Funcinpec reflects on election debacle

Funcinpec is going through a phase of intense introspection following its election

debacle. Having succeeded in installing chiefs in less than 1 percent of the Kingdom's

1,621 communes following the February 3 elections, the party has finally realized

its royal credentials can no longer be used as a trump card.

However, more than its failure to gain the largest number of votes in more than ten

communes, it is the sharp drop in vote share over the 1998 parliamentary elections

that has served it a severe blow.

Preliminary results show that Funcinpec's overall vote share dropped to 21.8%. That

is 10% less than its share in 1998. Worse still, the party took 45.4% of the vote

in the UNTAC-sponsored 1993 election, which means its share has halved in less than

a decade.

"Funcinpec figured out that you can't just drive to a commune, give a speech,

then look at your watch, see it's 4 o'clock and race back to Topaz for dinner,"

said one diplomat.

To re-invigorate itself, the party embarked on a fire fighting exercise February

12-13, setting up a task force of senators, MPs, ministers and top party functionaries.

The two-day meeting with the chiefs of provincial electoral groups, governors and

deputy governors is expected to pinpoint the causes of party's sliding popularity

and recommend a detailed action plan to be set in motion in a few months, "so

the voters are not disappointed again in future".

It is expected that heads will roll in ministries, governorships and the party hierarchy

once the task force submits its report. Political observers said that could be too

little too late.

In the run-up to the commune elections, most political analysts predicted the party

would easily win top positions in at least 20 percent of communes, provided voting

patterns in communes and districts remained similar to those in 1998. Bringing in

Prince Sirivudh, the King's half-brother, as secretary-general of the party in July

2001 was meant to revitalize Funcinpec.

Insiders said he has not had sufficient time to make an impact. The results indicated

that the party fared poorly even in areas that were believed to be its traditional

strongholds. Party president Prince Norodom Ranariddh shrugged off suggestions that

the result perhaps sounded a requiem for the party.

The mood at party HQ was mournful after news trickled in that Funcinpec had failed

to take even a single commune in Phnom Penh. Party leaders admitted privately that

complacency, technical weaknesses and a coalition of compulsion with the formerly

communist CPP had cost them dearly at the hustings.

Ranariddh, however, put on a brave face, insisting his party is still the second

force in Cambodian politics. He said the result should not be seen as a defeat for

Funcinpec.

Before leaving for France for a health check-up February 11, he ordered a committee

be set up to investigate what went wrong.

"We need to find out what the voters need and how Funcinpec can better respond

to those needs," he said.

The party's deputy secretary general, Senator Kem Sokha, was more forthright in admitting

the weaknesses and mistakes that made the party the biggest loser of the 2002 commune

elections. In a series of meetings with the Post to analyze the results and what

Funcinpec needs to do, he admitted the party had failed on both political and technical

counts.

He said it appeared that thousands of party supporters who faced violence from their

CPP rivals during the 1997 coup and later staged protests against them during the

1998 elections, did not like the fact their party leaders had - as one young supporter

bluntly stated - "sold themselves off to the enemy [by entering into] a coalition

with the CPP".

Sokha, who is on the task force, said the party should have explained the reasons

behind the coalition.

"We joined hands with the CPP for the sake of peace and political stability

in the country, and for the safety and security of our members," he said. "It

was the CPP-Funcinpec coalition that brokered peace; [otherwise] the conflicts would

have continued."

Did that mean the party could now reconsider its coalition arrangement to win back

the deserting supporters?

"That's simply not possible," Sokha said. "What we need to reconsider

is the conditions of our coalition. So far, it has been only the CPP that has benefited

from what was supposed to be a mutually beneficial agreement."

Dr Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said that its failure

to distinguish itself from the CPP proved Funcinpec's biggest undoing. Voters realized

that if they had to vote for someone in power, the CPP provided a better prospect,

since Funcinpec offered no clear alternatives.

"The only electoral policy that Funcinpec had was not to antagonize the CPP.

If the CPP stood for continuation of the status quo, the SRP represented change.

As for Funcinpec, it was neither here nor there. True, they have the royal connection

but they can't possibly offer the King to the public," he said.

As for the King himself, one palace watcher said His Majesty was seriously depressed

at the poll results as Funcinpec's poor showing meant that the image of the King

did not work any more in favor of the party he founded.

It is said that the King wanted to leave the country for Switzerland, ostensibly

to visit his doctor, Dr Georges Pathe, but was prevented from doing so by the Queen.

On the technical front too, poor choice of candidates, weak organizational skills

and even worse management of human resources were among the main causes of the party's

failure.

Though it gained a share of power with appointments of ministers, provincial governors

and even military commanders in exchange for the coalition, the party said its candidates

have simply been accommodated rather than given real power, since crucial positions

went to the CPP. As a result, it was not in a position to do much for its supporters.

"The teacher was used for farming and the farmer for teaching work. How can

you expect results?" Funcinpec Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay asked at a post-election

briefing.

Another factor that damaged the party's standing in Phnom Penh was the appointment

of the CPP's Chea Sophara as governor in 1998. Though the position was Funcinpec's,

it handed it to the CPP due to "lack of a suitable candidate" within its

own ranks, raising the hackles of its supporters.

Ranariddh also suggested that attacks on his party by the opposition leader Sam Rainsy

ended up strengthening the ruling CPP, while robbing the royalists of votes. Other

factors included a heavy pro-CPP bias in the National Election Committee, vote buying,

killings, threats and intimidation by the CPP.

Despite the problems, Ranariddh insisted the election was a victorious step toward

democracy and said his party, as the second largest in all provinces bar one, would

install deputy chiefs to share power with CPP at the grassroots as well.

"It was our party only that committed to holding the commune elections way back

in 1993. The holding of the election itself represents the culmination of what we

initiated," Sokha added.

In licking its wounds, the party seems to be regaining some of the assertiveness

normally seen during pre-election politicking. The leaders say the hard lessons learned

will make Funcinpec stronger for next year's electoral battle. Are the voters prepared

to give the royalists another chance? The general election will show.

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