PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's fragmented
opposition parties are promising to work together
rather than compete against each other for votes
in the next election. All it took was another
crushing victory at the polls by the country's
Few expected the governing
Cambodian People's Party, with Prime Minister Hun
Sen at its helm, to lose in nationwide local
elections held here June 3. Yet the way in which
it won - securing 97% of commune chief seats
nationwide - was particularly decisive.
the election was a barometer to gauge the
political climate ahead of key parliamentary
elections scheduled for 2013, then it showed that
a great deal of work lies ahead for what is still
a divided opposition.
Just as troubling
for the opposition is that more Cambodians than in
previous elections are choosing not to vote.
say the June election
drew roughly 60% of registered voters. This
suggests a trend of declining voter turnout, from
the 67% that voted in the previous commune
elections in 2007, and the 87% who turned up a
The sagging numbers could be
hurting the opposition more than the ruling CPP.
"The CPP know how to motivate their
supporters to come to vote," says Thun Saray,
president of Adhoc, a local rights group. "They
try to facilitate everything for the voters to
come to vote."
While the CPP has
controlled the political landscape in Cambodia for
the better part of two decades, the two largest
opposition groups - the Sam Rainsy Party and the
Human Rights Party - run separate campaigns even
though both promote a similar social justice
Saray says sympathetic would-be
voters may be choosing to stay home, unable to see
a viable alternative to the ruling party in a
"If they are separate,
if they are divided among themselves like this,
the voters don't expect to have political change
through the election because they already see the
results," Saray says. "One big party competes with
the two small parties. You see the results."
Those results saw the Sam Rainsy Party
lose ground this month, even in areas where it is
traditionally strong, such as the capital, Phnom
Penh. At the same time, the Human Rights Party,
competing in its first commune elections, walked
away with almost as many commune chief seats as
the more established SRP.
president of the Cambodian Centre for Human
Rights, says both parties were expecting a larger
return at the polls, eager for momentum before
next year's important parliamentary elections.
Rather than the opposition gaining ground,
however, the CPP merely cemented its dominance.
Virak says the results should come as a
wake-up call to the opposition. He says the
parties should join forces or merge if they have
any hope of mounting a significant challenge to
the CPP next year.
"Smart politicians will
definitely consider that and look at that option,"
Virak says. "That's probably the best option for
The parties have floated the
idea of a merger before , but failed to hammer out
a deal before the election. The HRP's performance
this month may give it an added bargaining chip.
In an interview, party president Kem Sokha
said the low voter turnout this election is a
concern. He says the two opposition parties need
to cooperate "for the sake of the Cambodian
people." "For us, we want to merge into one
political party," Sokha says. "Because if we
remain separate, with separate voter lists,
different political parties, we cannot combine our
votes together against the ruling party."
The SRP, for several years the clearest
opposition to CPP rule in Cambodia, appears to be
more amenable to the idea than in the past. Party
leader Sam Rainsy remains in self-exile in Europe
after fleeing prosecution for incitement that was
widely seen as politically motivated. In a
telephone interview after the election, Rainsy
said his goal is to "unite all the opposition
The two parties plan to meet for
discussions in July. But whether all the
personalities can co-exist is a question mark.
Rainsy, for his part, appears eager to remain the
"I don't say if. I
say when I return, inevitably in the near future,
the potential of the SRP will come back," Rainsy
says. "If some voters were demotivated because of
my being absent, when I return, my name is going
to mobilize people."
Before the opposition
can mount a united campaign going into next year's
elections, it will have to find a compromise among
its own ranks. That, says the CCHR's Ou Virak,
will be no less of a challenge.
difficult to get these two parties to be
strategic," Virak says. "Most of them believe
they'd rather see the other parties, the other
politicians, just vanish, and not participate. I
don't see them being able to actually overcome
this. I think it's going to be very difficult."
Either way, much would have to change in
the next 13 months for the CPP to relinquish its
dominance over Cambodian politics.
June election, opposition parties attempted to
exploit growing discontent around controversial
land evictions. A series of violent publicized
evictions before the vote left the government open
Yet while the SRP and HRP's
social justice platforms may speak to human rights
concerns and the increasing number of Cambodians
affected by land disputes, the election results
showed that many more Cambodians are just as
willing to park their votes with a government that
has overseen steady economic growth and relative
stability following years of war. And that may be
something even a united opposition will have