Friday, February 15, 2008

Who to Vote for in the Next Election

For some this is not even worth a second thought. They will vote for the party they believe will do the best for their country, whether or not they know a lot about their programs or how their party will achieve what they promise.

From what I read online and learn from overseas Khmer in conversations most of them would vote for the Sam Rainsy Party as the party and its chairman stand for changing what they perceive to be the most important issues and problems Cambodia is facing today. But whether overseas Khmer like it or not, they don’t have much weight in the grand scheme of things in Cambodia.

Although Sam Rainsy does not use the same message, he can probably be likened to Barack Obama in the U.S. in the sense that they both want change and convey hope. They both want to alter the ways and methods of the entrenched politicians who think more of their own pocketbooks than about the people.

But what about the people in Cambodia, and they are the ones that decide the elections? We know that the majority voted for the CPP in the last election. The opponents of the CPP allege voter intimidation and vote buying as the main reason they gained a majority, though not enough to form a government at that time. The constitution was changed and an absolute majority is now sufficient.

Now it is widely held that the CPP does not even have to resort to such rigging methods as their party machinery throughout the country is so effective and their hold over the smaller towns and the villages is so firm that they will most likely win a vast majority, even greater than the last time. We know that the CPP’s strength lies in the countryside with the rural population that is generally less educated, less informed, and more gullible than the city-dwellers.

The SRP’s main support comes from the more educated and better-informed city population and young people, mostly in Phnom Penh and, to a lesser degree in Sihanoukville, even though the SRP lost ground in the last commune elections in Phnom Penh too.

If the springtime commune elections, with 1592 communes going to the CPP, 27 to the SRP and 2 for Funcinpec, are an indication at all for the general elections in July, the CPP will even win a two-thirds majority, legally giving them a free hand to run the country as they choose. They could even abolish the monarchy, for instance. But even the CPP itself does not see this happening.

Despite rampant corruption, the muzzling of critical media, alleged human rights violations, tacitly tolerating illegal land grabbing, evicting the down-trodden from land they occupied and owned by possession for many years, there can be no doubt that the past years have changed the landscape in Cambodia, both economically and socially. Although unemployment is still very high and the widespread rural poverty is unabated, the signs of some prosperity are seen everywhere, from the many cars, especially SUVs, in the streets of Phnom Penh, to the packed restaurants at night and the new modern high-rise buildings going up. Some modest prosperity has also spread to the rural towns, though to a lesser extent.

Needless to say, the CPP claims all the credit for the progress Cambodia has made over the past 15 years; well, they have been in power all these years, haven’t they? As mentioned in a previous article, let’s leave out Funcinpec for its virtual insignificance in today’s political Cambodia.

The SRP has been sort of a gadfly in Cambodian politics, voicing its opposition in strong and aggressive words and questioning many of the government’s policies. But this has had very little effect on the course of events in Cambodia. The SRP also says that they usually fare better in general elections than in commune elections, but given the current economic growth, it might be a safe assumption that the CPP will ride this wave very successfully.

Both chairmen, and as such candidates for prime minister, are not without detractors. Hun Sen is seen as a quasi-dictator who rules his party and the country with an iron hand, notwithstanding the two factions within the CPP, intolerant of any opposition to his views and actions, and who considers himself the best leader for Cambodia. At least he can point to the longest reign as prime minister in all of SE Asia. But reports and studies show that under his rule the freedom of the press is restricted, civil rights are disregarded, corruption is endemic, and human rights are violated.

Sam Rainsy, a highly educated man, a banker, who did well for himself in his years in France, is seen as rather autocratic too, accused of being dictatorial with his own party, intolerant of different views from his own, not showing real leadership qualities. He does not have any experience in government apart from his brief stint as finance minister in 1993/4. His undifferentiated stance on ethnic Vietnamese, illegal Vietnamese immigration and the past history between Cambodia and Vietnam makes him appear as a panderer to older nationalistic segments of the population, and, not the least, overseas Khmer who bankroll a substantial part of his party machine. However, his lack of concrete proposals for putting Cambodia on the road to true freedom and prosperity is glaring. He is by definition a populist in the truest sense of the word.

Both seem to enjoy the limelight, as all politicians must, and give numerous speeches. Sam Rainsy is by virtue of his education the more articulate one, whilst Hun Sen comes across as rather crude in his public remarks.

Sam Rainsy shows up at every demonstration, strike, or eviction to denounce the government’s policies. Hun Sen uses many occasions such as school inaugurations, graduation ceremonies, to hold forth extemporaneously on whatever is on his mind at the time, from undisciplined driving, to too much drinking, to unfaithfulness of government officials, etc.

Sometimes, elections are not about what people stand for but who they are – what’s called the likeability factor. It seems that Hun Sen, despite his weaknesses and shortcomings, wins in this department with the people in Cambodia.

According to the Institute for Civic Education the CPP might win 61, the SRP 41, with the other parties sharing the remaining 20.

Using this projection, the assumption that the CPP will produce a weaker result, and a recent statement by the chairman of Funcinpec that they will surely win 6 seats, the SRP could theoretically form a coalition government with the other parties, foremost the Ranariddh Party and the Human Rights Party, albeit unlikely.

Again, as pointed out in another article both party programs have noble and ambitious, principally rather similar goals. We know what a CPP government looks like and what they promise and what they actually do or don’t deliver on, but what would happen if the SRP came to power in a coalition government?

In short, the SRP’s avowed goals are to:

1-Eliminate corruption

2-Reduce poverty

3-Bring back true democracy

4-Stop illegal immigration

5-Restore national sovereignty

6-Preserve natural resources and to protect the environment.


Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its people generally hardly make enough for a living so the workers in the public sector try to complement their income with all kinds of surcharges – they are simply not paid enough. If government officials and administrators make only $80 a month on average (excluding ministers, state secretaries, generals, etc.), which is in no way sufficient to house, feed, and clothe a family of 4, it is hardly surprising to see them charge extra for their required services, be it a passport, drivers license, or family book. If you want to have it done fast, you pay more. In the private sector this is called profit, in the public sector it is graft.

On the other hand, private enterprises pay bribes to government officials to secure profitable concessions and contracts. Are these the ones siphoning off what the U. S. Ambassador Mussomeli once publicly said is about $320 million lost annually due to corruption?

How to stem or eliminate this? The simple answer would be to pay the government workers more. But how much? And where would the money come from? And who are the ones raking in the big bucks in corrupt money, and what to do with them?

The expenditures for government workers’ wages for 2008 are projected to be around $175 million according to the draft national budget for 2008 or roughly 3.2% of the GDP.

The money for pay-hikes would have to come from other budget items. But according to the IMF, projected budget spending for 2008 is considered prudent, in other words, there is hardly any room for shifting monies from one department to the other, not to mention that 50% of the budget is still financed by foreign aid.

As to who is getting the big bucks through corruption in the government? Well, we can only surmise. Hard facts are hard to come by. But one thing is for sure; you take away their source of extra income they won’t let go easily.

So just to say ‘eliminate corruption’ doesn’t quite cut it. The SRP needs to elaborate.

Reduction of Poverty

‘We need to reduce poverty!’ It sure has a nice to ring to it and it will make poor people’s eyes well up with hope and expectation.

But how exactly do you stimulate an economy in such a way that it creates jobs by the hundreds of thousands in 5 to 10 years - an economy that had to develop back from a stone age level in 1979 to some semblance of a structured free-market economy in the last 15 years?

What areas do you target? Where do you focus your efforts? What new industries will you try to attract?

These are tough-to-answer questions, but they must be answered nonetheless.

Again, those catchall phrases in the party program just won’t do it.

Bringing Back True Democracy

Well, this is a misnomer from the start. Cambodia had never been a true democracy until the first free elections in 1993, so it can’t be brought back. Period. It should read ‘Implementing Democratic Reforms’.

Today Cambodia is for all intents and purposes a democracy with a parliament, a government, and a judiciary, although the system is still severely flawed. The governing party exerts unconstitutional control over the judiciary. There is no rule of law.

Vote rigging was rampant in the last elections, but even without that the CCP would have won a majority to form a coalition government, which it did. To believe that the SRP would have won enough seats to join with Funcinpec to form a government 2003 is belied by the results.

The country is ruled by an oligarchy who won’t give up their prerogatives easily. They will be an almost insurmountable opponent.

Stopping Illegal Immigration

Clearly, this is aimed at the Vietnamese. Just as the U. S. government cannot stop its illegal immigration, despite all those much-heralded cures such as building a wall, no Cambodian government will be able to stop Vietnamese people from coming to Cambodia as long as Vietnam has a Communist government and life is easier in Cambodia even for poor people. Those immigrants are economic refugees.

So will a SRP government be able to stand up to its Eastern neighbor in implementing visa regulations, better border controls, and other travel restrictions, which will also clearly affect its cross-border trade, which is substantial?

This is the most populist theme of Sam Rainsy, and he does not embrace real solutions taking into account all aspects, such as economic, social, and political repercussions.

Restoring National Sovereignty

Together with the ‘Vietnamese issue’, this is one of those populist themes Sam Rainsy incessantly harps on. Cambodia is a sovereign state, believe it or not. It undoubtedly has clearly defined borders. Yes, some of them, both on the Thai and on the Vietnamese side, are in dispute. This needs to be resolved in negotiations with both countries. But Cambodia signed a border treaty with Vietnam that is valid and in force. Any aberrations must again be resolved by negotiations.

Calling for the re-convening of the Paris Peace Conference is another point, which is meant for popular consumption rather than for substance. The Paris Peace Conference convened to prepare the way and arrange for the first free elections, and peace for Cambodia and was disbanded thereafter. The signatory countries to the conference, Vietnam among them, agreed on the inviolability of Cambodia’s territory. As a result of those elections Cambodia became a true sovereign state. No outside country has any power to alter that, not even another multi-state conference, unless Cambodia agrees to it. Cambodia is a member of ASEAN. The ASEAN charter includes articles recognizing the territorial integrity of each member country.

Indicating that Vietnam is still the secret ruler of Cambodia is somewhat of a long reach, and Sam Rainsy most likely does not believe that himself. This is cheap rhetoric designed to foster and foment xenophobia in Cambodia and it is misanthropic and counterproductive.

If Kampuchea Krom is considered part of that restoration, they must recognize that it is Vietnamese and will remain Vietnamese, as any international jurist will confirm. It is unrealistic to pursue the dream of a return of that territory to Cambodia or for it to become an autonomous state.

Preservation of Natural Resources and Environment

This is most likely the only subject where a different government can have an immediate impact if it has adequate means at its disposal to enforce all the regulations and laws that are already on the books to stop illegal logging, fight pollution, and start rebuilding the environment.

But will the robber barons of the logging industry timidly withdraw from their highly profitable ventures or will they fight back?

Additionally, there are other vital factors to be considered if a change of government should occur.

Since the current government and the administration are so corrupt what will the new cabinet do with all the civil servants that are on the take? Replace them?

If you sweep with an iron broom those employees will simply not show up for work, as they did under Communist rule. They will report in the morning and disappear after an hour or so to jobs outside. If they are fired the government would come to a complete standstill, chaos would ensue. These people, most of them loyal to the CPP, could not be replaced from one day to another.

The fat cats benefiting from the current system will certainly not go without fighting back. Those people hold considerable power in their hands. All of a sudden the new government might see itself confronted by a united front – don’t count on the two factions in the CPP.

Certainly, all those generals who usurped their position for their own enrichment won’t stand by idly waiting for the dismantling of their power and wealth.

And, would Hun Sen go quietly? If the elections in 1993 are an indication, he won’t, but he might have matured in the meantime and really meant it when he recently said that he will go into opposition if the SRP won a majority.

An SRP-led government would be confronted with innumerable problems and formidable enemies. It is doubtful it could tackle both at the same time.

No matter how you look at it, the picture would not be rosy if the SRP won. Quite the opposite might happen, perhaps even civil unrest or civil strife as in Kenya. That country is worth another look. The characteristics are very similar to Cambodia, although tribal lines are very dominant in that power struggle. But they finally reached an agreement to form a grand coalition in order resolve the problems facing the country. Could that be a formula for Cambodia to follow? Only joined forces can overcome the immense problems a developing country such as Cambodia faces.

However, what is most disturbing in the current situation of the opposition party is that it appears to revolve around one person, the chairman, only. The one or two other personalities with some profile mostly remain in the shadows. Sam Rainsy seems to micromanage all levels of the party machinery. He has not formed a recognizable shadow cabinet. Will he have, or be able to recruit, capable ministers, or will he just have the same sort of uneducated party functionaries in office as the current government? Perhaps his cabinet will be as inept as the present one? Proof to the contrary has not been forthcoming.

He makes all public announcements and is the SRP’s only visible persona. Those announcements and speeches are missing one very significant feature: he does not offer any concrete solutions. He pounces on the incompetence and the mistakes of the current government. If the ADB, IMF, and the World Bank see political stability in Cambodia, although coupled with some form of repression, Sam Rainsy is not very credible by declaring the opposite.

At the present time vast amounts of money pour into Cambodia from South Korea and China. Cambodia has a very special relationship with both countries. The to-be-inaugurated South Korean president was a one-time economic adviser to Hun Sen. These two countries wouldn’t invest so much money in Cambodia if they did not consider it politically stable. Will these investors have the same confidence in an unproven government?

Most of the South Korean businesspeople come to Cambodia because doing business here is much easier than in China, where they used to go until recently. But regulations and red tape have become so cumbersome they now choose Cambodia. Will that change with a Sam Rainsy government?

The recent defections from his party are some indication that at least a few of the higher-ups in the SRP see their leader as somewhat ineffectual. The party seems to just muddle along without a clear strategy. It doesn’t look like they are really prepared and ready to take over the government.

It might just come to pass that the general population will see it the same way. Undoubtedly Sam Rainsy’s intentions are good, but it takes more then condemnations and populist rhetoric to turn elections and a country around. An anti-government stance alone is not enough.

It won’t come as a surprise then if the CPP wins the next elections on its merits alone (without having to resort to vote rigging). Should the SRP, however, use the next few months to formulate clear-cut policies, concepts, workable alternatives and solutions, present credible and capable personalities for a competent cabinet, and convey all this to the public successfully the outcome might look different.

So the answer to the question of who to vote for will, of course be left to the individual people. But for them to see real alternatives, the political scenery needs to change first.

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