While most political parties clamor for attention in the campaign period, the ruling
Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has appeared more comfortable sitting out opportunities
to debate its policies and record. Prime Minister Hun Sen does not want to answer
questions because, he says, he is "not campaigning".
"For one month I will not respond to journalists' questions," he told reporters
on July 3 in a repeat of his pledge to remain above the political maelstrom.
In itself, this is only slightly unusual. While the Prime Minister gives frequent
and very brief 'doorstop' interviews, he rarely exposes himself to questioning at
any length or depth.
And his colleagues tend to follow suit. While there are notable exceptions, many
senior government and civil service figures are in the habit of refusing to provide
the media with answers to questions. Some simply hang up when they find a journalist
on the other end of the phone. Others resort to absurd ploys to avoid the questioner.
"I can't hear you", "This is his driver, what do you want?" and
"I don't speak English" are among the more popular brush-offs when certain
ministers or secretaries of state pick up their phones.
Chea Vannath, president of local NGO the Center for Social Development (CSD), said
the CPP hierarchy allows very few people to speak out.
"It is a very well-structured and well-controlled organization," she said.
"The individuals have no freedom or liberty to speak about policy whatsoever."
Nor do they need to. Compliant television, radio and print outlets dutifully show
a parade of government officials handing out rice and sarongs in villages. Hun Sen's
speeches are broadcast widely and in full. Despite the Prime Minister's 'non-campaign',
this has continued to be nightly fare on local TV.
But opportunities to subject the most senior government officials to critical questioning
are thin on the ground. Even during this election campaign, don't expect to see a
senior minister front a press conference to explain how the party will deal with
the issues facing the country in the next five years.
Despite this, the idea of compelling decision-makers to face the press or their constituents
has not been high on the donor agenda. The UN Development Programme, which has channeled
$7.5 million of donor money into the election, has concentrated on providing campaign
space to the opposition parties.
At a June 20 press conference, the UNDP's administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, implored
journalists to share the media spotlight with smaller parties.
"You [in the media] have an obligation to cover all the candidates in the campaign.
I should be asking: 'Are you going to give opposition candidates adequate space in
your media outlets?'" he stated.
Outside of the 'equity time' principle that applies to news on state broadcasters,
that exhortation has had little impact. The evening news still cuts between Hun Sen
at a tree planting ceremony, Chea Sim wandering the grounds of a pagoda, and the
Prime Minister's wife handing out bags of Cambodian Red Cross rice.
But for the foreign press, giving equal space to the opposition is hardly the issue.
While the opposition leaders are always available, the Post received no reply to
a mid-March written request for an interview with Chea Sim, who is not only the CPP
chairman, but also the President of the Senate and number one on the party ticket
for the capital.
To be fair, Funcinpec's approach is similar: six letters sent since March to Prince
Norodom Ranariddh and his advisors also went unanswered.
Malloch Brown, himself a veteran of political campaigns in the Philippines and Chile,
noted that it is probably a clever strategy for Hun Sen.
"Hun Sen has said to me that he wanted to stay above the election fray and manage
the government," he said. "Frankly, he has whatever is the Cambodian equivalent
of a 'rose garden strategy', which may be a reasonable calculation given the little
polling data I've heard about. I suspect he may have a political tactic of not being
Chea Vannath said that people who came to CSD-organized public forums with questions
for CPP candidates were disappointed that none of its representatives participated.
While a CPP representative attended the forum in Kratie, other forums have gone ahead
without any candidate from the ruling party.
And she is not convinced that the strategy is in the best interests of the party.
"Actually I feel sorry for them because it makes them look afraid and like they
lack confidence. [But] I don't know how much pressure donors can put on the CPP,
though it would be good if they could apply more," she said.
Candidate debates organized by the US-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI)
have had more success in attracting CPP representatives. Although the ruling party's
candidates declined to meet with union representatives and their members for a debate
in early July, they have attended all the NDI debates arranged so far.
"They've been very participatory, very engaged and willing to turn up. There's
no reticence on their part," said Mark Wallem, NDI's senior resident director.
For the Prime Minister, however, Vannath said the political risks of debating his
opponents would be too high.
"Because of the history it would be too dangerous for him [to debate with other
leaders]. It would open the Pandora's box of his political platform, the judicial
system and even his personal affairs," she said.
Malloch Brown argued that the country's development performance should be at the
heart of the election campaign, and said he had advised opposition leader Sam Rainsy
to "go out and publicly cross-examine the government on how it's doing on poverty
reduction, jobs, education or healthcare".
But he acknowledged that those goals were not best served by a government that ducks
scrutiny in favor of staged set-pieces with the party faithful.
"Let me say that I think the government should be available and open to the
media," he said.
Maybe in 2008 it will be.