Analysts say there's a lot to be gained from joining forces, but personality clashes could sink plans.
NEW talks of an opposition merger have again inspired hopes of a grand democratic alliance to balance the power of the Cambodian People's Party, but observers say that recent aborted merger attempts call into question whether the parties will learn from the past or end up repeating it.
The Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party signed an agreement to align under the banner of the Democratic Movement for Change in January, following the ruling party's landslide win in last year's national election.
Yem Ponhearith, secretary general of the HRP, said that during the party's national convention on Sunday, delegates will vote on whether to merge fully with the SRP ahead of the 2012 commune council elections.
He said the recent string of suits against government critics had made the need for unity more urgent than ever.
"We need more dialogue in order to achieve our aim to merge into a single democratic party before 2012," he said.
"We hope that our plan of merging the parties will not meet any obstacles. We want a democratic party that will balance the power of the CPP."
SRP lawmaker Chan Cheng said that the Kingdom's democrats must be united if they want to challenge the CPP in the future, adding that the merger idea was a popular one.
"Voter feedback is very important for democratic parties to consider," he said.
"If we are not united, it will kill our political careers."
Legacy of division
The track record of previous merger attempts reveals an opposition in disarray.
An attempt to merge prior to last year's national election was foiled after Sam Rainsy made comments in May referring to the "weak points" of his
HRP and Norodom Ranariddh Party coalition partners.
An attempt by Norodom Ranariddh to broker a three-way merger in late 2007 was also rebuffed by the SRP and the HRP, which claimed they would not need royalist support in the 2008 elections.
But Hang Puthea, executive director of election monitoring group Nicfec, said last year's election, which delivered 90 seats to the CPP, 26 to the SRP and just three to the HRP, was a reality check for the opposition.
"Before the last election, there were some promising ideas about a coalition. They could not cooperate together, but they have dragged [the idea] back since they learned of the results," he said.
Complicating the proposed merger are the three requests Yem Ponhearith said the HRP will make to the SRP: that the new party not bear an individual's name, that there be a two-term limit for the party president, and that all party decisions be made collectively.
Some analysts said that removing Sam Rainsy's name from the title of a new opposition party would bring benefits, but that the proposal went to the heart of a conflict of personalities that has stymied past merger attempts.
"I think it will be an effort for Sam Rainsy himself, in terms of his personal ego, to give up his name," Chea Vannath, an independent analyst, said, adding that it could prove the new party is "serious" about forging a new political consensus.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that though personalities are important in Cambodian politics, a party based on a single individual could alienate potential supporters.
He said, "If [a] good politician wanted an opportunity, why would they want to join a self-named party? My suggestion is that there should be a balance between personalities and structure."
Though Sam Rainsy and HRP President Kem Sokha appeared to work well together in public, he said, they do not appear to cooperate at a "concrete, organisational level".
But union leader Rong Chhun said the spectre of a political landscape dominated by the ruling CPP had raised the stakes for the opposition.
"Both politicians and leaders in the two parties are very proud of their achievements, and they have never been tolerant enough to merge into a single party," Rong Chhun said.
"The most important point is that they tolerate each other and put the interest of the nation at the forefront of their work rather than individual interests."