Bending the rules to serve its interests, Cambodia’s ruling party is unlikely to lose the political game
By Dr Markus Karbaum
The tale of a Cambodian election is a short one: parties compete with each other for the favour of voters in a competition where one of the team captains is also the referee. This referee does not feel obliged to create or foster a game based on fairplay and equality. Instead, the player with the whistle bends the rules into a shape convenient for its team. The game ends as it is expected to, with the referee picking his own team to win.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, head of the Cambodian People Party (CPP), is one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers. Since he seized power in 1997, a year of bloody factional fighting, Western donor countries and international organisations have largely ignored the government’s de-democratisation drive. Perhaps regular elections were enough to appease their demands for democratic reform.
This year benevolent supporters such as the European Union have lost patience. In April, the EU said it would not send election observers to the July 28 ballot, as its recommendations for previous elections had not been taken into consideration.
Its decision was announced shortly after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) asked the international community to refrain from sending observers to the country so as not to lend legitimacy to the poll.
In recent months, local newspapers and websites have been peppered with stories that strongly indicate the elections will be far from free and fair. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is barred from participating in the vote, along with hundreds of thousands of voters thanks to incomplete – possibly manipulated – voter lists. Employing threats and biased state media, Prime Minister Hun Sen has explicitly stated that an election victory for the opposition would ignite “internal war and external war”.
Leaning on fear in the lead-up to an election is an effective use, and gross abuse, of power.
The CNRP has tried to hit back by claiming that the country’s Achilles heel is its close relationship with Vietnam. A number of Cambodians have aired concerns over increased Vietnamese settlements in Cambodia; however, issues relating to the integration of ethnic minorities have not found a way onto the political agenda. The opposition has attempted to fill this silence by nurturing anti-Vietnamese sentiments. Whether or not you agree with the patriotic rhetoric spouted in the lead-up to the elections, baseless claims by the CNRP’s front-runner Kem Sokha that the S-21 torture centre was an invention of the Vietnamese revealed the party’s desperation to smear the ruling party. One can only hope that if the CNRP were to win the election, they would put this ugly genie back in its bottle.
In the unlikely case of a CNRP majority on polling day, however, there is little expectation that the CPP would cede power. People power – as recently demonstrated in the Middle East – can shake the foundations of a government to the point of collapse, but as long as the incumbent CPP maintains its heavy-handed internal discipline and the CNRP lacks the ability to mobilise the masses, a CNRP-led government appears unlikely. Instead there is every indication that the CPP and its leader will continue to rule the country for another five years. If the elections are tainted by accusations of interference, will any nation, leader or group question the legitimacy of the government?
It would be interesting to see how the country would vote in a genuinely free and fair elections. But as long as the referee is whistling for his team, we will never know.
Dr Markus Karbaum from Berlin, Germany, is an independent consultant, specialising on Cambodian politics and regional integration in Southeast Asia.
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