Off of National Road 5, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a dusty road leading to Svay Pak commune is flanked by two party billboards: the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on one side, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on the other.
The juxtaposition seems appropriate for a commune where 47 CNRP activists made headlines this month by allegedly defecting to the ruling party.
The spectacle was not the first, of course. Every few months, the CPP trots out a slew of defectors who announce their shifting loyalty in dramatic fashion. For example, on May 16, pro-government news source Fresh News reported that over 600 CNRP activists defected to the ruling party across five provinces and the capital.
CPP officials predictably revelled in the spectacle, pointing to divisions within the party, while CNRP officials scrambled to deny that the defections ever took place. In the rare instance when the opposition party does admit the desertions are legitimate, it scorns the defectors as bribe takers.
But the truth, analysts say, lies somewhere closer to the middle. One of the Svay Pak defectors, Morm Noy, lives down a narrow road hedged in by houses made of stone, brick, and sheet metal.
He supported the opposition for around 15 years, but as of this month pictures of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Heng Samrin are plastered on either side of his door.
“I supported the CNRP because they are the party that loves democracy, and I love democracy,” Noy said on Monday. “I saw that this party helped the people being oppressed get out of oppression.”
In 2014, Noy became directly involved with the CNRP, attending monthly meetings with district- and commune-level party officials. But less than three weeks before the June 4 commune elections, Noy seemingly had a change of heart. Repeating many of the ruling party’s classic criticisms of the opposition, Noy explained that he had became disillusioned with what he called the CNRP’s empty promises, and added that he appreciated the ways the CPP had helped develop his commune.
“The [CNRP] makes unfulfilled promises. I am unhappy that the party asks commune candidates to pay a contribution,” Noy said, claiming CNRP candidates must pay over $1,000 to get on the ballot.
In contrast, Noy painted the CPP as an effective, helpful party that embraced him despite his past, developed infrastructure and streamlined the documentation processes in his commune.
But this seemingly straightforward story of a political about-face is part of a political dance that the country’s political observers say reveals weaknesses in both major parties, and may have outlived its political usefulness.
Government-aligned local media outlet Fresh News originally reported that 47 CNRP party members defected in Svay Pak commune earlier this month. Noy, however, said just three official members defected, with 44 opposition supporters also pledging to vote for the CPP instead.
On the other side of the aisle, local CNRP official Sok Khim claimed just one party member defected. When confronted with the specific names of the three defectors, however, he acknowledged they had gone to the other party as well.
“They are benefit seekers – they don’t care about the party, and they don’t care about the country,” Khim said.
But political analyst Meas Ny identified three main reasons why CNRP members defect to the ruling party. Some turncoats, he said, are moles who only joined the CNRP in order to defect in extravagant fashion, some are bribed and others are genuinely unhappy with the party.
Ny criticised the CNRP’s “culture of dealing with conflict”, saying the party is “too sensitive” and not open to internal criticism.
“Sometimes when their candidates and supporters are not happy, [CNRP] does not try to look into the root of the problem … As soon as someone is not happy with them, they tell them to leave,” he added.
In contrast, Ny said, the CPP is more attentive to its members’ needs, and places a greater emphasis on keeping supporters happy.
Responding to the criticism, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declined comment, aside from asking: “Can the CNRP follow one voice or follow a million voices?”
Meas Ny, however, also maintained that defections are likely equally common in both parties, though the CPP’s traditional dominance of traditional media gave CNRP defections outsize prominence.
However, the value of that visibility remains up for debate.
Social media in recent years has become the preferred source of news for many Cambodians, and Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said yesterday that in the new political context, most Cambodians had learned to tune out the CPP’s “barrage” of anti-opposition propaganda – including defections.
“It’s background noise. These are carefully crafted media events, propaganda events … The people are pretty wise to that fact,” he said. “That awareness has only been increased by the spread of social media and increased access to alternative media,” Strangio added.
As if to prove the point that the political theatre of defections had lost some of its dazzle, three villagers interviewed at random in Svay Pak commune said they hadn’t even heard about the defections there, despite two of them living a stone’s throw from Noy’s home.
“I was not aware of the defections. I am not sure yet. I think I will vote for the CNRP because Hun Sen stole Cambodians’ land,” said housewife Pov Chanty, who lived at the end of Noy’s narrow street.
Nuth Saranchanveasna, a 31-year-old from a different part of the commune, seemed to confirm the theory.
“[The defections] could make the CNRP lose the public’s faith, but the people who switch to CPP are just searching for personal benefit,” Saranchanveasna said, adding that the entire political manoeuvre was just a distraction from more pressing issues like healthcare, education, and justice.
Ear Sophal, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, agreed that voters, for the most part, see through the defection ploy.
“They’ve been doing it for nearly 25 years. Call it what you want. They reel them in and parade them around … Sure it demoralises the opposition when one of their own turns against them and acts like a wind-up doll. But it says more about the defector than it does about the opposition itself. Voters know that,” he said via email this week.
Sophal also echoed Meas Ny’s criticisms about the opposition party’s lack of internal democracy, but said the ruling CPP was no better. “To go from the opposition to the ruling party isn’t to say that the ruling party is better run or more democratic. It just has cushier jobs and a nearly infinite supply of money,” he said.