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Cambodia election not about ideas

A democracy that brooks no opposition is hardly democratic

Photo courtesy of PhotoQR/Quest France Photo courtesy of PhotoQR/Quest France
  • Fr Francois Ponchaud MEP, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • June 11, 2012
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Anyone who thinks that elections in Cambodia have anything to do with democracy should bear a few things in mind.

In the latest elections held on June 3, some 9.2 million Cambodian voters went to the polls to elect 11,353 local councilors, submitted by 10 parties, in Cambodia’s 1,621 communes.

According to commune legislation, it is not these councilors who elect their town leaders, but rather the winning party that appoints them. Actually, it is those who give the largest sum of money to the party that have the final say.

Voters do not know precisely for whom they are casting their vote. These leaders are village chiefs, appointed by the Ministry of Interior as a key element in controlling the population and transmitting the orders of the powerful.

Cambodia’s political structure is not based on ideological conviction but the sharing of material interests among a clandestine party. During election campaigning, there was very little exchange of ideas or programs, but rather manifestations of strength by various parties.

Until the last day the Cambodian People’s Party, former communists led by Khmer Rouge dissidents installed by Vietnam in 1979, and also the richest of the country’s political parties, put all the apparatus of the state into its propaganda. All media, television, radio and newspapers are owned by members close to the CPP, and are therefore exclusively at its service.

Until the last moment of campaigning, the CPP tried to buy votes with gifts of kramas (traditional scarf), sarongs (long traditional dress) and even money (the equivalent of half a day’s wages) all of which are decisive arguments to seduce the poor in election campaigns, but have nothing to do with informed policy.

The government remains communist in its conquest, conservation and management of power. The current regime has a unique heritage, even donning new clothes for the international community, which accommodates fairly well with the status quo.

The CPP knows what is good for the people in its democratic centralism. It tolerates no opposition, it decides everything in its own interest, and promotes the country for the benefit of a few dozen families. But when we realize that the “people” actually means the “party,” it is no surprise to see the “party of the people” speak and act in its own interests.

It was no surprise that according to unofficial results – the official ones will be announced on June 24 – the CPP won a majority 72 percent of council positions (7,993) in 94 percent of communes (1,592) – only one more than in the 2007 elections.

CPP members were elected to head three communes in Phnom Penh, previously held by the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, whose leader has been in exile in France for two years to escape a prison sentence, having been condemned by an unjust verdict.

The SRP won 19 percent of commune positions and lost six (winning 22 commune positions instead of 28 in the last election).

By contrast, the new Human Rights Party (HRP) in its first election bid won 18 municipalities. The two royalist parties divided and all other small parties were excluded altogether from political life.

Even though the elections were conducted peacefully – as the organization of elections has clearly improved compared with previous ones – we note numerous irregularities both in the preparation of voter lists and the running of the election itself. Many voters did not find their names on the lists – they were either struck off the lists or otherwise misappropriated.

Between 36-46 percent of voters participated in the election, while participation in 2007 was 67 percent, and 87 percent in 2002. Many factory workers in Phnom Penh balked at the expense that would have been required for a trip to their home villages, where they were registered to vote.

A greater number, it seems, were displaced by indifference: Why vote when the results are rigged and nothing changes.

By comparison, the Vietnamese community (nobody knows exactly how many), whose country supports the government in power, turned out en masse.

Nevertheless, an analysis of the election results shows that the CPP victory was not as brilliant as the party would like to affirm. It gained ground in the cities where the public benefits from economic development and accommodates itself well to the violation of human rights (land evictions, robbery), which ultimately affects only a few tens of thousands of people, or at most a hundred thousand – not a substantial electoral bloc.

Most of the evicted did not vote in town, or at all, because they could not register in time. It is also in Phnom Penh where the majority of the Vietnamese community lives.

In contrast, the SRP and HRP won votes in the election by focusing their propaganda on the rights violations against the poor who have been dispossessed of their land by concessions. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also sensed this danger, establishing a moratorium on the granting of food or economic concessions and declaring two days before the election that existing land disputes in Oddar Meanchey province had been resolved.

I would wager that the powerful would be wise enough to follow this line, if not actually this policy, at least until the next legislative elections on July 27, 2013 – if not for the good of the Khmer people, at least to secure the party’s future.

If the two opposition parties had reached agreement, as is their aim, they might now endanger the supremacy of the CPP.

Fr Francois Ponchaud MEP is the celebrated author of Cambodia: Year Zero, the first account detailing what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) were doing to the Cambodian people, and is a frequent commentator on Cambodian affairs
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