Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Let the People's Voice Be Heard

by Melissa YF Wong

The general response I received speaking to a few residents of Siem Reap on the upcoming National Assembly Elections is that the Cambodian's People Party (CPP) will win and return to power. Few expect a change in government, and even fewer care to contemplate its possibility.

"The election will be simple. The CPP will win," said Mr. Tain Lyneth, a local business owner, "the Opposition will not win because the CPP is too powerful."

Mr. Lyneth was referring to what the CPP can do with its money and power. Vote buying and voter intimidation is rampant, and few dare to stand up to CPP members who come bearing "gifts" of rice and clothes going even to the deepest of country sides to ensure nationwide support.

According to a Human Rights Watch 1998 report on elections in Cambodia, the CPP is the only party actively campaigning throughout the countryside, an area where 80 percent of Cambodia's population lives. The report also contained details on aggressive recruitment campaigns conducted by the CCP in many provinces where local officials went from house to house to obtain thumbprints and pledges as proof of support. In most cases, people living in the communes complied under duress and intimidation, oftentimes by their own commune leader. To be fair, it is not wholly inconceivable that opposition parties, in vying for votes, also engaged in such practices.

The Cambodian People's Party election campaign billboard

Still, fast-forward ten years and these practices still undermine Cambodia's democracy. Sally, 23, a food vendor at the Siem Reap market who can converse in Malay having worked in Malaysia for five years, said that several CPP officials went around the market handing out rice, cloths, t-shirts and caps bearing the CPP logo, just the day before I visited her. Sally however, has no real opinion on what the election will mean for her and her family. She doesn't dwell on it as long as the safety of her family is guaranteed.

"I don't care even if Hun Sen (Prime Minister of Cambodia and CPP key leader) wins," she said. "I just want my family to be safe."

Asked whether she thinks her people share her feelings, she answered the affirmative. "Old and young, people just want their families safe, and their right to earn a living ensured. Beyond that, no one thinks much of what they (political parties) have to offer."

In reality, there are many things to consider in light of the upcoming elections. Cambodia has long faced corruption as the nation's single most pressing issue. Transparency International Corruption Perception Index ranks Cambodia at 162, making it the eighteenth highest corrupted nation in the world with a confidence range of 1.8-2.1 out of 10.

Recently, in 2006, The World Bank suspended million of dollars worth of funds to Cambodia after it found irregularities and evidence of the mishandling the funds of seven projects. Although an anti-corruption law was drafted in 1994, the law has yet to be enforced to the full extent, said Dr Michael Sullivan, Director of Operations for the Center for Khmer Studies.

He characterised this year's election as "certain" but "different." According to him, the CPP will regain power and governance, even more so when the first-past-the-post system replaces the proportional representation system previously employed. If the CPP wins under this new system, Cambodia will perhaps see the end of a coalition government," he said.

Despite being certain that the CPP will resume power, Sullivan still believes that voters will behave unpredictably. He suspects that political parties will campaign as they always have: on old themes of Vietnamese immigration, judicial reform, salary increase for civil servants and economic stability. Unpredictable, is whether contemporary issues such as land grabbing, corruption and increase in crime rate will affect the choices of the younger generation of Cambodian voters or that fear of a non-peaceful transfer of power will ultimately cause them to reinstate the status quo.

After all, Cambodia has experienced violent reactions after previous elections in particular those of 1993 and 1998. It took approximately one year before consensus was achieved, and a government formed after the 1993 elections. Violent protests took place predominantly in Phnom Penh in 1998, after opposition parties rejected the election results.

The Cambodian people have the potential to demand for change, but will continue to be mired in what some in the West perceive as an illusion of democracy. From what I have been told, Cambodians usually speak loud and clear during the election but their voice is seldom heard over the imposition of an autocratic-like ruling party that spares no cost in ensuring their power is sustained.

Polling day is a little more than three weeks away for the Cambodian people. To be sure, the world's eyes will be on Cambodia.

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