Some analysts say 2008 has seen the advent of one-party rule, but others argue the CPP's consolidation may be the foundation Cambodia needs for genuine democratic development
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks with reporters outside the National Assembly after the first day of debates on the 2009 budget draft law.
AT the tail end of a year that has seen unprecedented consolidation of power by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, observers are divided on the current health of Cambodia's democracy and the future prospects of its fragile multi party system.
While government officials have said that the peaceful atmosphere of July's national election was an indication of the country's political stability, others say the slackening support for Cambodia's opposition could see the country backslide into the one-party rule of the 1980s.
"[Cambodia] has a de facto one-party rule," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
"On the surface we have more parties, but it has pretty much been a one-party state since the coup of 1997. I don't see how we can define it any differently."
Opposition figures agreed that the CPP's large parliamentary majority - and near monopoly of positions on the Assembly's nine special commissions - augured a return to single-party rule.
"Cambodia has returned to an authoritarian kind of system," said Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay.
"[The ruling party] should spend more time to strengthen the country's institutions, to solve its social and economic problems."
He said that a strong opposition was the life blood of democratic states, and that debate in the National Assembly was likely to wither with the diminution of the opposition's role.
"Most of the time, in any good parliament, there is a strong opposition. When you shut the opposition up, no one will speak out and criticise the government," Son Chhay said.
2008 has been a year of consolidation for the CPP, which won a resounding victory in July's national poll and increased its share of National Assembly seats from 73 to 90, while also absorbing a steady trickle of opposition defectors.
Funcinpec stalwart Serey Kosal on Tuesday announced he was joining the ruling party after nearly two decades of trenchant opposition to the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In October, the party's ex-president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, retired from active politics, thereby weakening - perhaps fatally - the country's flagging royalist movement.
People with ideas don't have power, and people who have power have no ideas.
But the CPP gains came in a national election that international observers saw as a distinct step forward, noting that the atmosphere during each poll since the UN-brokered elections of 1993 was marked by decreasing levels of political violence.
"The July 27th National Assembly elections were the best example to date of Cambodian citizens freely assembling to express their will through the vote," said US Embassy spokesman John Johnson by email.
The European Union Election Observation Mission also noted that the election "[took] place in an atmosphere which was an improvement on previous elections," despite "falling short of key international standards".
In response to EU criticisms, Tep Nytha, secretary general of the NEC, told the Post in August that he was confident the elections were conducted freely.
"The NEC followed the regulations in the Election Law, meaning that the election was free, fair and just," he said.
Some observers, however, said that analysts' undue focus on the election process overlooked less obvious indicators of democratic health, and that in key respects Cambodia fell short - irrespective of the election results.
"Democracy is not only a matter of elections," said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former Funcinpec member who founded the royalist Sangkum Jataniyum Front Party in 2006.
"Democracy is a matter of exchanging ideas, and there is no exchange of ideas in Cambodia. People who have ideas don't have power, and people who have power don't have ideas."
David Chandler, a historian who has written extensively on Cambodia, agreed that the increasing stability of the Kingdom's electoral system since 1993 was no certain indication of the system's durability - something that could only be gauged by the peaceful transfer of power away from the CPP.
"Cambodia has a very short history of pluralism ... [and] peaceful transfers of power in Cambodia are very rare indeed," he said by email.
"Even the elections of 1993 were marked by violence, and in the end power remained pretty much where it had been before, at least as far as the police and the army were concerned."
Prince Thomico agreed that the electoral transitions of the 1990s had masked continuities in the concentration of political power.
"Cambodia has been stalled ever since 1993, and the only changes that have taken place since [then] are the replacement of Funcinpec ministers by CPP ministers," he said, adding that major ruling party figures, including Hun Sen, Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, had dominated their posts like feudal baronies.
"To develop and grow, we have to create dynamics. What we are really creating are lordships and baronies all over Cambodia with other names: We are making okhnas, we are creating ministers," he said.
"Cambodia is completely stalled, without any real direction."
But others noted that the achievements of the last 15 years had to be seen in historical context.
Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, said Cambodia's democracy was still in its infancy and the stability of CPP dominance could provide a foundation for future democratic growth.
"[Cambodia] is such a young democracy, [so] sometimes firm control is not such a bad thing," she said, adding that the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party stayed in power for almost 60 years before ceding power to its main opposition rival.
Pointing to recent upheavals in Thailand, Chea Vannath said that having a strong opposition was no guarantee of political stability and democratic development.
"If you put a multi party system with very strong parties into the Cambodian context, you don't know what could happen, especially when you compare [Cambodia] to the situation in Thailand," she said.
Ou Virak said that although the democratic space had narrowed in 2008, that was a better measure of politicians' attitudes than that of the majority of Cambodians.
"In this environment, where you have politicians on both sides lacking a democratic culture, I think you have to go to the people," he said.
He added that democracy would make further advances in Cambodia once people saw its tangible - as opposed to abstract - benefits.
"The one thing lacking is to somehow show that democracy also impacts their pockets, the quality of their life and their ability to send their children to be educated," Ou Virak said.
"I think freedom and democracy, and people making their own decisions, are actually a part of human nature. I think every human being in the world would want to choose."