Saturday, 26 July 2008

Phnom Penh's one-horse election race

The Bangkok Post
Saturday July 26, 2008


Cambodia's political parties are in their last day of campaigning before the electors go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new government. Although 11 parties have fielded candidates, the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) led by the longest-serving leader in Asia, Hun Sen, is expected to win a landslide victory. This has also further fuelled fears that Cambodia is effectively becoming a one-party state.

This is the fourth election since the UN-sponsored elections in 1993. Hun Sen _ Cambodia 's prime minister since 1985 _ has emerged as the prime minister after all the previous elections. In the past he has ruled with the royalist party, the Funcinpec, forming a coalition government.

But after two months of problems forming a government after the last elections in 2003, the constitution was changed so that the party with more than 123 seats in the National Assembly can automatically form the next government, which will rule for five years.

So far the election campaigning has been carnival-like, with colourful campaign convoys clogging up Phnom Penh's streets with clashing cymbals and rolling drum beats promoting the various parties.

But the good-natured appearance of the processions masked the reality that this is a one-horse race.

Few people have come out to hear what the candidates and the party representatives have had to say. Even the canvassers have been less then enthusiastic. A group of women marching behind a truck with a blaring megaphone promoting the leading party, the CPP, admitted being thoroughly bored. The bystanders were even less interested and many declined to take the party's propaganda.

''Why should I care, we know who's going to win,'' said Thy Thi Kaeng, a Chinese cab driver. ''I voted Funcinpec [the royalist party] the first time, then they joined Hun Sen in government, so I voted for Sam Rainsy after that, but this time there is no point, it's a wasted vote,'' he said.

The Election Commission, though, is confident of a strong turnout at the polls. There has been a very heavy media campaign over the last few weeks, urging Cambodians to exercise their right to vote. ''I expect more than 70% of the registered voters to cast their ballots at next week's polls,'' the EC chairman said.

But many people are likely to abstain this time, according to most diplomats based in Cambodia _ or they will vote for the ruling party because they do not want to have unnecessary problems as a result in the future.

''There is certainly a growing apathy amongst voters. Firstly, they are more preoccupied with economic issues. Secondly, they have seen the same party in power since 1993. This has led many voters to believe that there is no alternative, and they have become increasingly disinterested in politics as a result,'' UNDP's Strengthening Democracy and Electoral Procedures project manager Aamir Arain said.

The parties' political platforms are almost indistinguishable _ with the opposition parties stressing the need to strengthen the rule of law and liberalise the economy. Most seem to be targeting the rural constituencies, with the two main opposition parties _ the Khmer Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party concentrating their campaign in the countryside, especially in the west of the country, in the provinces near Thailand.

The dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple situated on the border has generated a renewed nationalist fervour, which is further strengthening Hun Sen's hand.

Already there is a major underground anti-Thai campaign under way. Mobile phone text messages are circulating in the capital city: ''Khmer love Khmer and should boycott anything Thai or with Thai writing on it,'' the SMS say.

Since the World Heritage Committee awarded the Hindu temple World Heritage status earlier this month, there have been huge public celebrations. The decision was announced live on the national channel, with Hun Sen's image amid revolving stars in the middle of the broadcast.
All last week, most Cambodian TV channels have been running mammoth telethons every day raising money for the temple restorations.

It has been hailed as an enormous national victory.

''The CPP will clearly benefit from the nationalist sentiment around the temple issue,'' said an Asian diplomat in Phnom Penh.

But this will only strengthen what was already the only possible result. But many fear that this will also be the final death knell for the last vestiges of Cambodian democracy.

''If there is no opposition party, the party in power can do whatever they want,'' warned Hang Puthea, executive director of the local election monitoring group, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC).

Others fear that the election is going to effectively make Cambodia a one-party state.

''We're concerned that the balance of power will be lost, and we worry that the CPP will control every level of administration from the top government posts down to the village,'' said Koul Panha, executive director of the election monitor, Comfrel.

Tensions are rising as Cambodia's political parties complete their boisterous campaigns before tomorrow's polls. So far there has been less violence than during previous campaigns, but ordinary Cambodians are getting increasingly nervous as Election Day nears.

Many Cambodians living in the capital have taken extended vacations and plan to stay indoors during polling day _ there is an unofficial three-day holiday to allow voters to travel back to their villages to cast their ballots.

Residents in Phnom Penh are hoarding food, petrol and candles in advance of the polls, according to eyewitnesses. Some have even sold their mobile phones to stock up, because payday is still a week away and they have run out of money, said one Cambodian female student.

''People always fear the worst, but there is little evidence that this election will be marred by the violence and vote-rigging of the previous two elections,'' said Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. ''Each successive election since 1993 has been more transparent than the previous one,'' he said.

During the first three weeks since the campaigns started, there have only been a handful of complaints of electoral abuse, all of which have been dismissed by the electoral body overseeing the polls.

''So far there is no real evidence of election violence or fraud,'' the Election Commission chairman, Im Soudsey, said. ''But all cases referred to the commission will be thoroughly investigated.''

In the worst incident so far, an opposition journalist, Khim Sambo, and his son were shot dead by unidentified assailants outside their home nearly two weeks ago.

The police are still investigating the incident and have yet to release their findings.

''This election is proving to be the most peaceful since Cambodia's first real democratic elections 15 years ago,'' according to the Cambodian political analyst, Ok Serei. ''The electoral process is maturing with every election,'' he added.

The opposition, though, still believes the elections are being rigged. ''Even though there is less violence, less deaths, the ruling party is using more subtle means to achieve the same results,'' the leading opposition leader Sam Rainsy _ whose party bears his name _ said during one of his election rallies last week. He alleged that the government is using intimidation and bribes to entice voters to support the governing party.

''Village chiefs remain a problem and frequently violate the laws,'' according to Chhaya Hang. ''But people know the importance of the elections and understand the rules and regulations.''

Kem Sohka, head of the other main opposition party, the newly formed Khmer Human Rights Party, was even more blunt, accusing the ruling CPP of harassment, intimidation and vote buying.

''They cannot win the election except by cheating,'' he said. ''And if they lose the election they won't hand over power, they'll hang onto it just like in Zimbabwe.''

No comments: