Jul 24, 2008,
Phnom Penh – Scarcely a month goes by without a human rights group decrying something about Cambodia under the country’s dominant Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog Transparency International ranks Cambodia as one of the most corrupt countries in Asia – a view shared by donors the country still relies heavily upon.
And yet no one is predicting that the CPP would emerge from national parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday with anything but a handsomely increased majority. Voters, it seems, just don’t care.
‘I can’t eat human rights,’ said CPP voter Si Nuon, 29, a housekeeper in Phnom Penh. ‘When the CPP says they are going to do something, they do it.’
Indeed, just 10 years ago, dusty, potholed roads led past ragged parks, and gunfire was a common sound. While Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries, sports utility and luxury vehicles now crowd smooth thoroughfares on their way to swank shopping centres and manicured public spaces where families picnic in the evenings.
Construction is everywhere, crowned by the site in the heart of the capital of Gold Tower 42, scheduled to be Cambodia’s first skyscraper.
The International Monetary Fund said last month that economic growth would drop from 10.4 per cent to a still impressive 7 per cent through 2008 but praised the government on its measures to help protect the poor from rising inflation.
‘Economic activity in Cambodia remains robust,’ it concluded.
But the CPP certainly hasn’t been harmed by the antics of its opponents, either.
Once voters equated royalty with stability. Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party, for example, won the first post-Khmer Rouge elections in 1993.
Since then, the royalists have been split by the prince’s philandering (he lives openly with a classical dancer with whom he has a young son) and corruption allegations that culminated in the prince being convicted in absentia for the illegal sale of his own party headquarters last year.
Ranariddh is currently in self-imposed exile in Kuala Lumpur, on the run from an 18-month jail term imposed over the sale of the multimillion-dollar party lands.
Other royals have proved just as mortal. Politician and Prince Norodom Chakrapong faced a court appearance in March last year over 1.3 million dollars in government tax debts, and his privately owned airline, Royal Phnom Penh, went bankrupt.
Of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, the CPP currently holds 73, the royalist Funcinpec 26 and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party 24.
Funcinpec continues to hope royalty translates into votes while the Sam Rainsy Party is known for its anti-Vietnamese stance and the CPP has concentrated on running a positive campaign highlighting infrastructure development.
Veteran CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said his party’s success is partly due to other parties underestimating the voters.
‘No government can avoid inflation,’ said Cheam Yeap, who claimed the CPP now has 5 million members on its books in a country of 14 million people. ‘The people know oil is up and, therefore, so is the price of everything, everywhere.
‘No one can avoid corruption, either. However, despite this, the CPP has made the country grow and the economy develop. Pessimists will always criticize us, but the people are not stupid.’
The ability of Hun Sen, a former soldier and farmer with little formal education but a formidable grasp of politics, to speak to the people in a language they understand and his refusal to speak down to them gives him an edge, the politician said.
‘In the first election in 1993, we won 51 seats, then 64 the next time, and 73 in 2003,’ he said. ‘Our rise is steady like a ladder. We are hoping for up to 80 seats this election.’
After Funcinpec unceremoniously dumped Ranariddh, it replaced him with Keo Puth Rasmei, the husband of Princess Arun Rasmei – a royalist connection Funcinpec is relying on.
‘The people love her royal highness,’ Funcinpec spokesman Ork Socheat said, ‘and right now, the people’s heart is in the market. I think we can win 40 seats and be the number two party.’
But even a beautiful princess finds it tough to compete against the CPP, which has visibly and steadily improved infrastructure, building hundreds of schools and pagodas across the country – often prominently branded with the names of high-ranking CPP officials.
Elections are traditionally a time of violence, but this campaign has been relatively peaceful although the shooting deaths this month of opposition journalist Khim Sambo and his son have drawn an international outcry.
But Cheam Yeap countered that voters would have their minds more on positives, such as the government’s work in securing UNESCO’s recent listing of the ancient Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site, Cheam Yeap said.
‘We will always be scapegoats for these people to blame,’ he said. ‘Where is their proof? Some parties know they have lost the election already so they are clutching at straws.’