The Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy parties’ merger is possibly off the table as they couldn’t reach agreement on a number of points, according to Kem Kokha. This together with my recent comment that Sam Rainsy (and Mu Sochua) lack broad appeal, made me wonder why the SRP doesn't want to take a slightly different tack. The lack of appeal was, of course, vehemently denied by partisan overseas Khmer by pointing to the respectable 21% they represent. My view is certainly an outsider’s view. I am not a member of the party, though I did talk to SRP people; but if I had the right to vote this is how I would think.
To the discerning observer the biggest problem is Sam Rainsy himself. To illuminate the point I am making let’s use an international example of a multi-party democracy that recently held parliamentary elections: Germany. For those of you who don’t read or watch international news here is a little background.
One of the so-called people’s parties, the Social Democratic Party, which normally gets between 33% and 40% plus or so of the vote slipped to a mere 23% . The loss of the Social Democrats is all the more noteworthy as they shared in the government of the last four years, could point to their record in governing the country, the foreign minister belonged to their party and they had several ministers in the government. So automatically this party had had ample exposure, although not as great as their coalition partner whose main candidate was the prime minister or chancellor as it’s called there. Nevertheless, the Social Democrats had been a partner in varying coalition governments the last ten years.
So why did the Social Democrats slip so much? And here is where I find some similarities between the SRP and the German Social Democrats; not so much in their results (both are still sizable) but in the profile of their party. One German political analyst tried to reduce the failure to one main point: this party conducted a campaign of saying “no” instead of saying “yes”. In other words, the Social Democrats highlighted the weaknesses of the Christian Democrats, thus giving them even more publicity, instead of focusing on their own strengths and alternatives to their political opponent. In addition the leading candidate was rather colorless, and, of course, during hard economic times people just don’t like to upset the cart by voting in too extreme politicians, e. g. the Leftist Party. The Social Democrats were not able to convince the large number of undecideds to vote for them. A certain disenchantment with politics also led to a larger than usual share of non-voters. As a consequence, the party chairman who is largely responsible for composing the party platform and the thrust of the campaign will resign from his position. The leading candidate will become the parliamentary leader of the party and most probably never again be the party candidate for chancellor, if history is a guideline. This practice, by the way, is commonplace in all Western democracies, possibly with the exception of Italy. Losers simply move back into the rank-and-file. 23% compared to erstwhile over 40% is just plain devastating for a people’s party.
In Cambodia you have an opposition party that revolves around a candidate who obviously isn’t able to reach a wider share of the population. As shown in Germany, those candidates usually step back and let somebody else shape the party’s profile. This is all but impossible with a party that bears the main candidate's name. Oftentimes, opposition leaders in third-world countries are able to formulate their message as being the liberator and the fighter for justice, equality, and freedom for all. Sam Rainsy certainly doesn’t fit that description in terms of liberating the country. He may have succeeded in creating the image of fighter for justice and equality. And if you ask the people, the vast majority think they have all the freedom they need.
It is striking that Sam Rainsy’s public persona is defined by his strident condemnations of the government. Although the party has a platform, incidentally very similar to the CPP’s, but the party leadership has not been able to promulgate clear alternatives and concise steps in how to bring about that much heralded change they stand for (to borrow a phrase from the Obama campaign). Instead they rely on incessantly hammering away at the same complaints of rampant corruption, impunity, violation of rights, etc. Regardless of whether these complaints are well-founded or not, and we know they are to a certain degree, the lack of a clear programmatic alternative and a well-defined identity have in my opinion proved more detrimental to the SRP; detrimental in the sense that the party could not achieve significantly better election results in 2008 compared to 2003. It would appear as though the constant barrage of criticism and condemnations of the Prime Minister and his government did not help the SRP at all. The party has a core constituency of about 20 or 21%. Outside this voter block people are seemingly just not convinced of the governability of the party.
The major problem, I believe, is the complete personification of the party. Sam Rainsy founded the party in 1996 as the Khmer National Party, only to find out that the CPP candidates in the 1998 election campaign usurped that name in describing themselves. After all, they were all Khmer nationals. This prompted Sam Rainsy to change the party name. The logic was that nobody could confuse that name with the CPP. Ranariddh incidentally followed the same logic when he founded the Norodom Ranariddh Party to make sure nobody mistook him as Funcinpec chairman that he used to be. Basically, in the aftermath of the 1998 elections the CPP and the SRP candidates were practically interchangeable. The wish for some sort power, be it local, regional, or national, not the issues seemed to be the motivation for most of them. (How else can one explain why a number of them switched to the CPP just before the last election?) What made the difference were the two party leaders. The people by and large don’t really care about Hun Sen’s past. So he was a Khmer Rouge cadre, but Funcinpec was in bed with the Khmer Rouge too, and this party won the 1993 elections - and both Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua are former Funcinpec members. The SR party is clearly identified with Sam Rainsy. This could have been an advantage if the leader were more charismatic and knew how to mobilize the masses. That has not materialized.
The SRP wants to eliminate corruption, implement pay hikes for civil servants, including teachers, create a safe environment for foreign investments, etc. Remarkable was Sam Rainsy’s call for a $500 million stimulus package to get the economy out of the recession. He called for more public spending in general. How he would finance that remained a mystery, probably even to him. He referred to the somewhat nebulous figure of $500 million that could be saved by eliminating corruption. Nobody knows how that figure was established except that the former U.S. ambassador once came up with that estimate. Even if it were true you could not eliminate corruption so fast as to be able to reap the $500 million and put it into public works programs.
It boils down to the leading personalities of the two competing parties – just like in Germany or elsewhere. And here Hun Sen, despite the hate he evokes especially among the overseas Khmer, clearly has the advantage. He has the benefit of the most prominent public office there is in Cambodia. The country under his leadership has progressed, although overall progress, especially in the countryside, is slow. If you looked at the country in 1990 or even after the 1993 elections and you look at it now, you would know that there has been undeniable progress. Many people prospered during the real estate boom. Garment factories opened their door and created employment for about 300,000. Tourist arrivals boomed creating about the same number of jobs. Yes, they were all low-paying but jobs nonetheless, and about 60,000 or so were lost this year due to economic slump. Not much of the wealth in urban areas has trickled down to the rural poor. But new roads were built; rural people could see progress through that alone. Public safety was established. (If you don’t believe me you should have traveled from PP to SHV in the early 1990ies.) Hun Sen enjoys wide support among the rural population. He portrays himself as the simple person with the same roots as them. He is not an elitist like Sam Rainsy who is the son of a well-to-do family and moved to France when he was 16, studied there, had a career in finance and became wealthy in his own right. He is clearly not one of the people. Whether one likes it or not, Hun Sen, despite his controversial persona, holds the better cards.
Sam Rainsy exhausts himself in his public denouncements of the government. There is nothing concrete in terms of remedies coming from him. This is certainly not enough on which to base another election geared towards his persona, although there is time until the next one, which is more than 4 years away. Maybe a few strategy sessions and in my opinion nothing less than a complete make-over of the party, including a change in name, a sort of reinventing itself, is going to help move the party from being the permanent minority party, which may possibly hover at 20%. Maybe even a completely new leadership would be required.
A personified party is too singular. Saying ‘no’ cannot replace true content of a message – a message this party has not managed to formulate. And with the chances of a merger with the Human Rights Party dwindling it looks like the party is not able to incorporate different ideas on strategy and content.