Friday, September 26, 2008

There wasn't a whole lot to talk about this past month except for the following article. In addition I am currenty in the U. S. and compared to Cambodia there is a much higher drama playing out there. Hopefully, it won't affect Cambodia too much, as I don't think any of the many banks in Cambodia purchased any of those imaginative financial instruments those gurus on Wall Street keep coming up with in order to make huge profits on imaginary transactions. But that is an article for another day.

The Cambodian Flip-Flop

Between the election and the flip-flop Sam Rainsy was busy accusing the ruling CPP of rigging the election. They claimed more than 2 million voters were denied their right to vote, sometimes it was only 1 million voters, but details were not so important here.

The rest of the world, at least the part that observed the election, commented slightly differently, some in guarded tones, some in a somewhat more critical tenor, but all agreed that the elections were for the most part free and fair, albeit with deficiencies.

The opposition, consisting of 4 parties, united in calling the whole election a fraud. But only a few days later two parties changed their position and said they now recognized the results. Needless to say that both parties were to be rewarded for their about-face.

Two parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, continued their campaign to get the election results overturned. Initially, they appealed to the National Election Council which promptly denied the appeal as unsubstantiated as the opposition had not submitted concrete evidence. The next instance in such appeals is the Constitutional Council, which turned it down as well. No surprise there. Neutral observers would have wished that they would at least have gone through the motions by holding public hearings or formed a special committee to investigate these allegations in depth and come up with an equitable judgment of the facts. But that is probably asking too much in this country where opponents of the ruling party are more or less openly persecuted.

On the other hand, though, the opposition conceded that the CPP had won the election by all counts, but the SRP would have gotten 10 more seats or so in the assembly. Maybe they have a point there but with the evidence they made public piecemeal they could not have made a strong case in a court of law in stable democracies of the West. Sure enough, the published material did show forgeries of voter rolls but the sticking point was whether or not these were singular incidents or widespread abuses. It is very doubtful that they could have produced evidence showing the disenfranchisement of 1 million people, let alone 2 million.

Not making any headway in their efforts the opposition then proclaimed a boycott of the opening session of the assembly and vowed to stay away from the swearing-in of deputies. The thinking was that the assembly needed all members to be present in its constituting session. They cited chapter 76 of the constitution, which, however, only states that the Assembly consists of a minimum of 120 members. The original Khmer version uses the word ‘mien’, which normally translates as ‘to have’ or ‘there is/are’. In no section of the constitution does it say a minimum of 120 members need to be present for the constituting or swearing-in session.

The Prime Minister then threatened to assign those seats to the other parties, which would have meant the CPP would have gotten around 114 seats of the 123. Whether or not that would have been legal has been rendered a moot point by the ensuing developments. Just for the sake of argument, however, it is clear that this would have been illegal. Any seat lost by a party through resignation, death, or other causes, results in the appointing of another deputy by the party that held the seat as a result of the election.

The opposition proceeded to publish their materials and started a public relations campaign involving signatories of the Paris Accords, the U. N., and the E. U. Both party presidents traveled abroad to make their case to the E. U. Apparently, they did not attain what they had hoped for - full-blown support from the E. U. or an outright condemnation of the election. None of the addressees of their correspondence gave a reply. They came back from their trip rather quietly. It was obvious officials had paid some lip service but wouldn’t go any further. One mustn’t forget that there were more pressing problems on their minds, too, like the Russia-Georgia conflict and the financial melt-down.

But they staunchly upheld their position that they would boycott the assembly as late as Sept. 23. Now everybody was waiting for September 24 to see whether or not the opposition would make good on their promise or not. Ardent followers of the political scene in Cambodia found this quite suspenseful. Most bets were that they would show up. After all, this is politics and nothing is ever written in stone in politics, is it?

Then on the morning of the 24th Cambodians sort of uttered a collective sigh of relief when they saw Sam Rainsy and other 23 deputies marching into the Assembly to participate in the opening session. On emerging from that session no interviews were given by Sam Rainsy, only Son Chhay his party spokesman said a compromise had been reached with the ruling party. But the suspense lasted a little while longer because maybe they wouldn’t show up for the swearing-in, although that was rather unlikely seeing that they had flip-flopped already. But sure enough they were all there, only the HRP stuck to their promise and stayed away.

Now what had happened? Accounts of this vary, but according to the SRP spokesman they had asked for some kind of recognition of the opposition’s role in the assembly which the Prime Minister promised to consider. That was all it took?

Before Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha left for Europe Sam Rainsy had spoken to the Prime Minister, according to the latter. Sam Rainsy had asked for concessions in order for him to not boycott the opening session and thus render the assembly paralyzed. Hun Sen refused to give in so Sam Rainsy flew off to Europe.

Now, everybody knows there are internal problems within the SRP. Many high-level members are not happy with Sam Rainsy’s autocratic style of leadership. One would also assume that most of them are not as well off as Sam Rainsy who obviously has something to fall back on in case he lost his seat in the assembly. Others may be dependent on that seat not for the salary it pays but for the influence they get in certain business circles. So one theory says that the second-tier members pressured Sam Rainsy to negotiate a deal with Hun Sen so they could participate and be sworn in without losing too much face. Seemingly, this was an all-night session taking place on the eve of the 24th. So in the end they contacted a prominent businessman with close ties to the Prime Minister early morning of the 24th laying out their proposal, which was promptly accepted.

Why the Human Rights Party was left out of that deal remains a mystery. What became clear is that Sam Rainsy’s hold over his own party seems to have weakened. In the West the press would be all over him – not here. Not giving any interviews doesn’t bode well either. Even the most ignorant voter knew that he had run on a campaign of empty promises on which he would never have been able to deliver. This flip-flop will cost him dearly in the eyes of his followers. From now on he surely will not be seen as the stand-up guy he purports to be. He is just another politician who jockeys for a good spot in public life – a true flip-flopper.

Would it appear as if he had come to his senses after all? Not really. He would have gained a lot of stature if he had just sat down with the Prime Minister putting forth his grievances but then negotiate an agreement that would have given the opposition a more active and visible role, thus ensuring a more prominent public image that would have served them well in the next election. His hard-headed stance was ill-conceived and counter-productive. Time will tell how this is seen. In the short run Sam Rainsy is a non-entity in Cambodian politics. Who will listen to him after this? In the long run, he might not even survive as a leading voice in Cambodian affairs.