After weeks of election-fuelled soap opera, Cambodia last week moved through the gears and finally stepped into full-fledged campaign mode, with the National Assembly elections now less than a month away.
The vast majority of political commentators, independent observers and domestic media are predicting yet another landslide victory for the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), albeit with the possibility – and, indeed, likelihood – of increased gains for the merged opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
However, it has been a soap opera, and a colourful one at that. On top of the continued self-imposed exile of opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, in the face of criminal charges – seemingly politically motivated – and the ban on his running in the polls, election watchers have recently been treated to a circus of accusations against Kem Sokha, acting president of the CNRP.
On June 14, a defamation lawsuit was filed against Kem Sokha over comments that he allegedly made about the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre S-21 and its having been fabricated by the Vietnamese after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Then followed lurid accusations by Prime Minister Hun Sen that Kem Sokha had a string of extra-marital affairs and that an unnamed member of the opposition had even procured sex with an underage girl in 2011. In a bizarre twist, the prime minister also claimed to have known about the latter crime at the time but had decided not to intervene.
Such political – and indeed personal – mud-slinging is common to many hotly contested elections around the world. Yet Cambodia’s election fever is unique in one respect: there appears to be a near complete blackout on policy discussion. Both parties are guilty of such neglect. But surely policies should be the basis on which elections are fought, otherwise what exactly are the voters voting for?
While personality politics can be entertaining, it is not what Cambodians want to hear.
Cambodia has come a long way since the end of the civil war, in terms of securing peace and generating economic development, yet many significant and well-documented problems continue to plague Cambodia.
The Cambodian people want to hear what a future government will do about the current land crisis, how it will tackle corruption, how it will strengthen the rule of law to ensure that all Cambodians have access to justice.
They want to hear how best to continue moving Cambodia from a war footing to a sustainable peace, with security forces properly deployed.
They want to hear about social development as well as economic development. And, more broadly, Cambodian people want to know what Cambodia’s future holds on the international scene: how the relationship with China can be cultivated to maximise its benefit for Cambodians; how the border disputes with Thailand and Vietnam can be solved for good; and what role Cambodia can play in an integrated ASEAN.
The election is there for the taking: if either party is bold enough to face up to these issues and develop policies to combat them, they might be surprised at how voters react.
The CNRP would realise the immediate strategic benefit of putting such items on the agenda and suggesting ways to respond. If it can provide a viable alternative to the status quo, Cambodians might be ready to place their trust in the new opposition.
On the other hand, if the CPP were to offer up a genuine self-appraisal – by highlighting its achievements (peace, economic development, infrastructure) while drawing up an honest “to do” list of outstanding problems that would demand its attention during the next parliament, it might be pleasantly surprised at the public reaction.
Cambodians should demand that they themselves, rather than politicians, be at the centre of this election, since they are the real constituents and stakeholders of Cambodia’s ailing democracy. In other words, Cambodians should demand that parties put people before politics – by putting policies before politicians – and they are fast running out of time.
Such a pivot would also spare us the continuous political soap opera, which is better suited to down time in the election cycle – once Cambodians have chosen their leaders and are confident that their lives are seeing genuine improvement.
Ou Virak is a Cambodian human rights activist and the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights