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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 24, '13


SPEAKING FREELY
Narrowed political gap in Cambodia
By Vannarith Chheang

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

There are expectations that Cambodia's July 28 general election will mark another milestone in developing the country's relatively young democratic political system. Eight different political parties will compete for the favor of some nine million eligible voters, though most analysts believe the race will be dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CCP) and the main opposition National Rescue Party (NRP) led by Sam Rainsy, although on Monday he was barred from running in the election.



Lively political debates and canvassing have been ongoing since the start of the election campaign in late June. Policy debates generally lack substance, since the political parties focus more on short-term goals and interests, rather than long-term visions and sustainable development. The politics of destruction and intimidation, meanwhile, are still commonplace, as exemplified by an anonymous shooting attack on the NRP's headquarters over the weekend.

However, this election is different from previous polls due to the increased participation of Cambodian youth in shaping future political developments and the use of social media such as Facebook to break the CPP's domination of local mainstream media. Topics covered on social media include demands for electoral reform, such as structural change of the National Election Committee (NEC), alleged irregularities in voting lists, cases of political intimidation, and opposition parties' lack of access to the mass media.

Against the background of these debates, the two main parties cut different political profiles. The ruling CPP is viewed as emphasizing peace, national reconciliation, infrastructure development, high economic performance, poverty reduction and boosting the country's image on the international stage. The NRP, on the other hand, is seen as prioritizing household economic policies such as increasing the incomes and improving the livelihoods of factory workers, farmers and civil servants, reducing energy prices and interest rates, as well as eradicating official corruption.

[On Monday, Cambodia’s National Election Committee rejected a request by Sam Rainsy to register to vote and contest the country's polls, throwing out a claim that a royal pardon this month for convictions handed down during the opposition leader's four-year exile, allowing him to take part in elections. The NEC said the pardon did not change its earlier decision that his name had been removed from the electoral register after he was sentenced in absentia and that the registration of candidates had long been closed.]

Sensitive political issues, including border rows with Vietnam and Vietnamese migration, are frequently raised by the opposition to attack the CPP. On foreign policy, both parties emphasize neutrality and non-alliance. But the CPP has elaborated more on the principles of peaceful co-existence and international cooperation, especially within the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (ASEAN) frameworks.

With its substantial financial resources and superior public outreach capacity, the CPP is expected to win the election with another absolute majority. (The CPP currently controls 90 of parliament's 123 seats.) The NRP, however, is gaining ground in challenging the CPP's long-held dominant position and is expected to receive an electoral boost from party leader Sam Rainsy's return from exile over the weekend.

If re-elected, prime minister Hun Sen and the CPP will find it difficult to deliver on their campaign promises, which include substantial political and economic reforms. If they fail to deliver, the CPP risks losing its predominant role at future polls.

This year's run-up to the polls has been relatively peaceful compared to past election periods, although there have been some reported cases of violence and a series of disturbances targeting the opposition party. It is a reflection of the increasing levels of maturity and responsibility of the different political parties and their members and supporters.

Before the start of the official election campaigns, Prime Minister Hun Sen strongly condemned the use of violence and called for tolerance, calm and stability. The international community and civil society organizations, meanwhile, are closely following the situation in order to ensure a free and fair election.

However, if the upcoming election is marred by irregularities, Cambodia may face international sanctions, particularly from the United States and Europe. A group of US lawmakers has already called for a halt to aid to Cambodia if the elections are rigged in favor of the CPP.

It is therefore necessary for all political parties to think about national interests and play by the rules. Moreover, the results of the election need be observed since it is important for political legitimacy, national reconciliation and unity. Cambodia cannot develop without the support and participation of all Cambodians from different political parties and factions.

From the business and investment perspective, there are no signs of reluctance on the part of foreign investors to expand their businesses and investments in the country. Most are confident that peace and stability will be maintained and political and economic reforms will continue to deliver results. The local business community, it is believed, generally prefers to see the maintenance of the political status-quo.

Yet the next government will need to deepen public administrative reforms with concrete development policies based on the principles of inclusiveness and sustainability. To realize its vision to be a middle-income country by 2030, the new government will also need to support strong and responsive public institutions, a resilient private sector, and an engaged civil society.

If held freely and fairly, the election process will contribute to peace, stability and continued development in Cambodia. The Hun Sen-led political leadership will most likely remain the same, but the next government will need to sincerely and seriously implement political, social and economic reforms to maintain its post-election legitimacy.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Vannarith Chheang is a Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

(Copyright 2013 Vannarith Chheang)


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