In Cambodia, a move to unite the opposition
Cambodia’s fragmented opposition parties are promising to work together, rather than compete against each other for votes. All it took was another crushing victory at the polls for the country’s ruling party.
Few expected the governing Cambodian People’s Party, with Prime Minister Hun Sen at its helm, to lose in nationwide local elections held here June 3. Yet the way in which it won—securing a commanding 97 percent of commune chief seats nationwide—was particularly decisive.
If the election was a barometer to gauge the political climate ahead of key parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013, then it showed that a great deal of work lies ahead for what is still a divided opposition.
Just as troubling for the opposition here is that more Cambodians than in previous elections are choosing not to vote. Election monitors say the June election drew roughly 60 percent of registered voters. This suggests a trend of declining voter turnout, from the 67 percent that voted in the previous commune elections in 2007, and the 87 percent of voters who turned up a decade ago.
Observers say the sagging numbers are hurting the opposition more than the ruling CPP.
“The CPP know how to motivate their supporters to come to vote,” says Thun Saray, president of Adhoc, a local rights group. “They try to facilitate everything for the voters to come to vote.”
While the CPP has controlled the political landscape in Cambodia for the better part of two decades, the two largest opposition groups—the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party—run separate parties and separate campaigns, even though they both promote a similar social justice agenda.
Saray says sympathetic would-be voters may be choosing to stay home, unable to see a viable alternative to the ruling party in a divided opposition.
"If they are separate, if they are divided among themselves like this, the voters don't expect to have political change through the election because they already see the results. One big party competes with the two small parties. You see the results."
A wake-up call
Those results saw the Sam Rainsy Party lose ground this month, even in areas where it is traditionally strong, such as the capital, Phnom Penh. At the same time, the Human Rights Party, competing in its first commune elections, walked away with almost as many commune chief seats as the more established SRP.
Yet Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says both parties were expecting a larger return at the polls, eager for momentum before next year’s important parliamentary elections. Rather than the opposition gaining ground, however, the CPP merely cemented its dominance.
Virak says the results should come as a wake-up call to the opposition. He says the parties should join forces or merge, if they have any hope of mounting a significant challenge to the CPP next year.
“Smart politicians will definitely consider that and look at that option,” Virak says. “That’s probably the best option for them now.”
The parties have floated the idea of a merger before , but failed to hammer out a deal before the election. The HRP’s performance this month may give it an added bargaining chip.
In an interview, party president Kem Sokha said the low voter turnout this election is a concern. He says the two opposition parties need to cooperate “for the sake of the Cambodian people.”
“For us, we want to merge into one political party,” Sokha says. “Because if we remain separate, with separate voter lists, different political parties, we cannot combine our votes together against the ruling party.”
For its part, the SRP, for several years the clearest opposition to CPP rule in Cambodia, appears to be more amenable to the idea than in the past. Party leader Sam Rainsy remains in self-exile in Europe after fleeing a prosecution for incitement that was widely seen as being politically motivated. In a telephone interview after the election, Rainsy said his goal is to “unite all the opposition forces”.
The two parties plan to meet for discussions in July. But whether all the personalities can co-exist is a question mark. Rainsy, for his part, appears eager to remain as the opposition figurehead.
“I don't say if. I say when I return, inevitably in the near future, the potential of the SRP will come back,” Rainsy says. “If some voters were demotivated because of my being absent, when I return, my name is going to mobilize people.”
This remains to be seen. But before the opposition can mount a united campaign going into next year’s elections, it will have to find a compromise among its own ranks. That, says the CCHR’s Ou Virak, will be no less of a challenge.
“It's so difficult to get these two parties to be strategic,” Virak says.
"Most of them believe they’d rather see the other parties, the other politicians, just vanish, and not participate … I don’t see them being able to actually overcome this. I think it's going to be very difficult."
Either way, much would have to change in the next 13 months for the CPP to relinquish its dominance over Cambodian politics.
In the June election, opposition parties attempted to exploit growing discontent around controversial land evictions. A series of violent publicized evictions before the vote left the government open to criticism.
Yet while the SRP and HRP’s social justice platforms may speak to human rights concerns and the increasing number of Cambodians affected by land disputes, the election results showed that many more Cambodians are just as willing to park their votes with a government that has overseen steady economic growth and relative stability following years of war. And that may be something even a united opposition will have difficulty overcoming.
This story was originally filed for IPS.