Elections are under way in Cambodia with observers near unanimous that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will romp it in.
Nothing symbolises how firmly CPP is on track to win the poll, and the country’s gradual return to normalcy, than the fact that a lot of my local friends are allowing themselves a luxury unthinkable in previous polls — they’re ignoring it and getting on with their lives.
Installed by the Vietnamese in 1979, CPP, or the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea as it was then called, governed throughout the 80s until the fall of the Soviet Union and economic reality forced them to accept an international peace deal and multi-party elections in 1993.
Although they lost that poll to the pro-royalist Funcinpec party headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of the country’s former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, CPP bluffed and bullied its way into a dysfunctional coalition arrangement that continues, in name at least, to this day.
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Bit by bit they have since rebuilt their influence.
Their leader Hun Sen is the son of peasants and a former Khmer Rouge cadre. He lost an eye during the Khmer Rouge’s assault on Phnom Penh in 1975. His sometimes bizarre political invective and his habit of referring to himself in the third person belie a master political operator.
He was instrumental in steering CPP towards market economics and has co-opted, removed (sometimes violently) and outsmarted all his rivals. And as Hun Sen loves to point out, he was in Cambodia while the country was under a US embargo and fighting the Chinese and Western-backed Khmer Rouge — unlike many of his opponents who were in France and the US.
There is some truth to this. The first official I spoke to during a recent visit to the headquarters of a major opposition party was a former computer salesman from the Melbourne suburb of Footscray.
The opposition parties, ten of which are contesting the ballot, are in disarray. The most serious challenger, the Sam Rainsy Party (named after its leader) has been weakened by a series of high-level defections to CPP.
Funcinpec has virtually disintegrated after Ranariddh was ousted as its leader two years ago and is facing wipe-out. Ranariddh formed another party, also named after himself, and is contesting the election from exile in Malaysia where he fled to avoid a (some say politically motivated) jail sentence.
At a recent rally of his supporters I attended, Ranariddh spoke via phone through a loud speaker. He sounded like an old phonograph recording from bygone era — a description many would say is quite apt given how out of touch he’s always seemed.
The fact these guys name parties after themselves tells you something — as does the fact they’ve been incapable of forming a united front to CPP.
NGOs monitoring the election lead-up have expressed concerns over an increase in political violence and persecution. Over the last week alone, one opposition party worker has alleged he was the victim of an assassination attempt and elsewhere a CPP official was shot and strangled to death.
These could be politically related or they could be the result of a drunken fight or business dispute turned bad. It’s hard to know.
The most significant factor at play in the July 27 poll is Cambodia’s peace dividend.
Many Cambodians, especially in major urban centres, intensely dislike Hun Sen.
But despite an explosion of land grabbing by powerful people, endemic corruption and poor service provision, a lot of people agree the country is in better shape than previously.
The civil war is over and the economy is growing, albeit mainly in the cities. Billions of dollars from oil reserves discovered off the coast could start flowing in the next few years.
You can feel dynamism on the streets of Phnom Penh not there a decade ago. Something else that’s new is the legion of young Khmers cruising about town on brand new motorbikes with the latest mobile phones.
There is no doubt that these people will wake up one morning and decide it’s time for major change. For now, they’re just enjoying the party.
Hun Sen has played this feeling well. There he is nightly on the five CPP-dominated televisions stations repeating the same message: CPP has brought peace and economic development — don’t jeopardise this.
Responsibility for problems such as skyrocketing fuel and food prices have been shunted on to international factors supposedly beyond CPP’s control.