A united opposition takes aim at one of Asia’s strongest ruling parties
SUPREMELY confident that his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will romp to yet another handsome majority in the general election on July 28th, Hun Sen, the prime minister, is hardly bothering to campaign himself. His ministers and minions do it for him, spreading out across the country to mobilise one of the region’s most formidable grassroots political organisations.
On the face of it, Mr Hun Sen (pictured, above, on the placard on the left) has every reason to be relaxed. At only 61 and in power since 1985, he is already Asia’s longest-serving prime minister. His party enjoys all the advantages that come with monopolising state power for decades: a captive government bureaucracy, near-total control of the media and mountains of cash. The CPP has increased its seats in Parliament in every election since democracy was fully restored in 1998, winning 90 out of 123 seats at the most recent election. Along the way Mr Hun Sen has used violence, and now more often the courts, to quash dissent and scatter any opposition. His reputation as a strongman does not seem to bother him. Though he provokes criticism from Western politicians and human-rights groups, China takes pains to flatter him.
This time round, however, the CPP is not having it all its own way. A whiff of genuine competition is in the air, mainly because the usually fissiparous opposition has managed to come together as the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). It combines the parliamentary strength of the well-established Sam Rainsy Party (26 seats in Parliament) with the Human Rights Party (HRP), founded only in 2007. The HRP won just three seats at the last election, but is strong at the local level.
As important, the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, a veteran activist, is proving a most effective campaigner. When the government recently tried to stop local radio stations from rebroadcasting Khmer language foreign programmes (from the likes of Radio Free Asia), it was a thinly veiled attempt to take Mr Kem Sokha off the air. These stations are how he reaches the people in the countryside who make up the majority of voters. Embarrassingly, the government quickly had to back down after a deluge of domestic and foreign protests. Mr Kem Sokha has rattled Mr Hun Sen, who is usually imperturbable.
Indeed, Mr Kem Sokha has the prime minister’s touch of being able to talk to poor farmers and stallholders about economic matters in ways that they understand. Unlike Mr Hun Sen, however, he is very visibly on the campaign trail, visiting a fresh province almost every day. Denied access to the media, and with low internet penetration in Cambodia, his is an old-fashioned kind of campaign, involving bellowing his message through a megaphone from the back of a pickup truck. His supporters love it. He draws large crowds as he takes the fight to Mr Hun Sen’s home turf of the countryside, challenging the supposed economic success there.
Mr Hun Sun’s chief appeal to the country’s 9m or so voters is what one veteran observer sums up as “stability and roads”. Given Cambodia’s history, it is a compelling combination. The CPP argues that after the terrible decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—of Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime followed by a Vietnamese invasion and then civil war—it was the party that brought peace to the country. And with that peace has come a palpable prosperity: last year GDP grew by over 7%. It has enabled the government to embark on a big programme to boost infrastructure, helped by the Chinese. In a poll of Cambodians earlier this year, America’s International Republican Institute found that 79% of respondents thought that the country was heading “in the right direction”, while 74% said that this was because more roads were being built, allowing farmers to take their rice to market, for example. The economy would seem to be Mr Hun Sen’s strong suit, therefore.
Hun Sen’s road
Sensibly, the opposition does not dispute the economic growth. Rather, it argues that the benefits of the boom go to an ever smaller elite consisting of the families of Mr Hun Sen and his cronies. It taps into a widely held belief that Cambodia is growing more and more corrupt, and that Mr Hun Sen’s rule is becoming alarmingly dynastic. All three of his sons play big roles in the regime, and one, the head of the CPP’s youth wing, is now running for a seat in Parliament.
To redress the economic imbalance, the CNRP proposes a populist programme borrowed, in parts, from a former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra (who happens to be a chum of Mr Hun Sen). Mr Kem Sokha promises an old-age pension of $10 a month and a minimum wage of $150. The costs of such programmes appear to have been badly thought out, if at all. Such is the luxury of opposition.
The CNRP says that for the coming election the voter rolls have been fiddled, and that the government will also find other ways to cheat. Still, the opposition’s cause will be helped if a long-exiled leader, Sam Rainsy, returns before polling day, as he has promised. He fled the country in 2005, facing several charges, all politically motivated, he claims. If he returns, the police vow to arrest him at the airport. That would prevent Mr Sam Rainsy from campaigning. But his incarceration would be even more valuable to the CNRP, as a symbol of Mr Hun Sen’s intolerant ways.