Monday, July 28, 2008

No Surprise There

Well, the elections are over and as expected the CPP won by a landslide. Voter turnout was reportedly around 70%, 13% less than in the previous elections, but compared to U. S. standards still sizable. Only about 56% of U. S. voters go to the polls with some dismal results, as we saw in both 2000 and 2004.

Naturally, the opposition cries foul. Sam Rainsy in his usual exaggeration is calling for new elections altogether at one point, and a re-vote in Phnom Penh at another, claiming more than 200,000 names of eligible voters were dropped from voter rolls. That seems like a very high, in my mind inflated, number. It is, however, a safe assumption that voters rolls were tampered with throughout the country. I personally harbor the suspicion that known SRP voters were dropped simply to show them that they had better vote CPP the next time, otherwise they won’t be allowed to vote at all. Those are Communist-style tactics, which entrenched officials obviously have not been able to throw overboard.

Officials blame it on snafus because of disorganization, which on the one hand sounds plausible given the state of affairs in the government apparatus, but on the other hand also sounds a little too easy given the previous record of the CPP’s handling of elections. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can expect the government to handle voter registration adequately, if it can’t even implement a proper tax collection system in order to get away from their reliance on foreign aid.

All neutral observers say there was intimidation, vote buying, absolute media control, etc., and that murder of the opposition journalist, that ensured a victory for the CPP and Hun Sen. This is all true, although I believe, the murder of that journalist and his son was the act of an enraged party loyalist at a lower level who just wanted to stick it to them, giving a signal they just can’t publish harsh, and sometimes questionable, truths about his ‘beloved’ party and its leaders.

With the majority of the population firmly behind Hun Sen and the CPP, one must really wonder why they still saw fit to resort to such tactics, and whether those tactics were sanctioned at the top or just the actions of local chieftains.

Thankfully, there was only this one incident shortly before the elections. But the Cambodian press can at times be really strident and virulent, and some journalists mince no words when it comes to voicing their opinions. The Cambodian press does not exercise that restraint found in many Western publications when it comes to publishing allegations. What’s missing in Cambodia is a non-partisan paper, at least I can’t think of one that would state the facts as they are, founded on research and quoting sources. The only ones are the foreign-language papers, The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, and to a lesser extent, the Cambodge Soir, which is seen to be leaning towards the SRP.

But with things the way they are we now have not only an absolute, but a two-thirds majority for the CPP, which gives them a free reign over the country, including constitutional amendments, if they so wish. The last 5 years have brought the country unprecedented prosperity, although unevenly spread, and one can only hope that the new government will not abuse its power to push through legislation to the detriment of the Cambodian people and the further development of the country. Hun Sen has undergone some change in his public persona, showing a more benign leader, though he can still lash out at his opponents in very crude language. By and large, however, he is seen as the country’s new father, who builds roads, schools, and hospitals, never mind that most of those were built with foreign aid. He is seen as the leader who brought all this foreign investment, including mine, into the country, and he is seen as the only one capable of further developing the country at this point. The population would have voted for him without the scare tactics anyway.

It is noteworthy that the young generation was and is as firmly behind Hun Sen as their elders. But that may have to do more with filial loyalty than own convictions. We will see in 5 years whether the now 20-somethings will have matured enough to see reality for what it is and opt for a change. Chances are, however, that the CPP will also mature and emerge as the one true people’s party as its name suggests.

Despite its oftentimes valid criticism of the situation in Cambodia, the SRP must also undergo a major change in its outreach to the people if it wants to play a more than minor role in Cambodian politics. In my view, Sam Rainsy only made empty promises that the people knew he could never deliver on. This is why he could not break into major new voter blocks, notably former Funcinpec voters. A party that identifies with only one person will also, by all political standards, never have that broad mass appeal as a party that stands for certain convictions and beliefs, and which should be seen in some form in its name.

Cambodia is facing a host of problems with high inflation, rising food and energy prices bringing a certain slow-down in its growth. Education and health care is still in a dismal state, not to mention the much-promised law on corruption. Time will tell whether we have some activists in the government or only self-complacent party apparatchiks that see their office as a means to riches rather than as a service to their country.

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