Late last year, in one of his provocative Facebook posts from abroad, opposition leader Sam Rainsy falsely accused Heng Samrin’s 1980s regime of sentencing King Norodom Sihanouk to death.
After Mr. Samrin, now the CPP’s honorary president, promptly sued him for defamation, Mr. Rainsy dug his heels in. Instead of disavowing the claim, he repeated it several times, arguing that even if the regime did not literally sentence the king to death, it had killed him “morally and politically” by establishing a republic rather than a monarchy in 1979.
It was the ultimate exercise in going off message, creating an unnecessary sideshow amid poor governance from the ruling party, which should have made leading the opposition as easy as drawing focus to the CPP’s genuine failings.
“I don’t think he really understands his responsibilities as an opposition leader,” said Cham Bunthet, one of the founding members of slain political analyst Kem Ley’s “Khmer for Khmer” advocacy group and an official with the Grassroots Democracy Party.
“He should work seriously on developing effective policies to demand for change, but he doesn’t do so. He never tells us clearly about what policies he will prioritize and how will those be implemented,” Mr. Bunthet said.
A population with growing expectations has over the past few years become increasingly and openly frustrated with the country’s dilapidated health care system, lack of serious education options and unremitting corruption, while hundreds of thousands of young people have fled abroad in search of work.
Yet the CNRP has spent little, if any, time pushing proposals to fix these major issues, and has made almost no use of what it said two years ago would be its wide powers as an opposition party in the National Assembly, which it is now once again boycotting.
“In terms of formulating alternative policies, they could really do that outside the Assembly if they wanted to,” said Ou Virak, the director of the Future Forum think tank, noting also that Mr. Rainsy had promised a more professional parliamentary opposition.
After ending the CNRP’s Assembly boycott in July 2014, Mr. Rainsy had said the CNRP would operate like “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” in the U.K.—forming a shadow cabinet with certain lawmakers being given policy portfolios.
After Mr. Hun Sen rejected the idea outright, the CNRP did not pursue the idea any further.
Mr. Virak said the CNRP should, at the very least, assign responsibility for different policy areas and designate a spokesperson for each policy portfolio, instead of its top leaders making decisions on the fly.
“They could create a shadow cabinet if they wanted to, even if they don’t want to call it that. They need to assign people to study certain policy areas and make proposals. Without that structure to focus on policies, they are never going to do much,” he said.
“They said they wanted to do this, but they have been all over the place. Everyone goes out in the field and speaks about everything,” he said. “They need to stay calm and composed—especially Sam Rainsy.”
The CNRP went into the 2013 election with a platform featuring seven main policies, including free health care for the poor and increasing the minimum monthly wage for garment workers and civil servants, each of which have since been adopted by the CPP.
Since then, Mr. Rainsy has proposed only two substantive policies: a now idle rent-control program he was working on with the CPP, and a proposal for land redistribution by tribunals that hear cases of land-grabbing under Mr. Hun Sen.
The CNRP does, in fact, have some nascent portfolio divisions, with 10 subcommittees in its steering committee assigned to different areas for policy development, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, who heads the foreign affairs sub-committee.
“I agree that the CNRP should have focused on well-formulated policies, and in the last few months we reformed the CNRP institutions in order to do that,” Prince Thomico said, adding that he hoped there would be more detailed policies released soon.
“I believe that for the next session of the National Assembly, we should raise this issue in the party. But so far we are more in the boycott spirit.”
In an email, Mr. Rainsy rebuked questions about why the CNRP had not more actively developed and promoted detailed policies about how it would fix health care, education or corruption.
“As a journalist you should have read—or at least enquired about—the CNRP’s political platform before asking tendentious questions on policies we intend to implement for our country,” Mr. Rainsy said. “You should also have read more carefully our public statements and my previous answers to your (more and more tendentious) questions instead of ignoring or distorting them,” the CNRP leader added.
Asked about the policies, he declined to elaborate, and referred questions to lawmakers in the party. However, a number of senior CNRP lawmakers involved in policy—Son Chhay, Eng Chhay Eang and Yim Sovann, its spokesman—could not be reached.
Pol Ham, the chairman of the CNRP’s steering committee, declined to comment on party policy.
Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s director of public affairs, said only that the party was developing its policies. “[W]e are in the same of reassessing and updating, fine tuning the 2013 platform. We will release the final version before the elections,” she said in an email.
Mr. Rainsy later sent a portion of the CNRP’s foreign policy, which says it would spurn international alliances in pursuit of strict neutrality, and pursue protectionist trade policies in some areas to “protect… against the impacts of uncontrolled free markets.”
However, Mr. Rainsy said that because he was overseas, he did not have immediate access to other policies on the pressing issues of health care, education, corruption and widespread youth unemployment.
Indeed, it does not help the CNRP that Mr. Rainsy has been living in his apartment in Paris since November, when he turned his back on public promises to return from overseas and stare down the CPP’s threats to imprison him for two years upon his return.
Mr. Bunthet of Khmer for Khmer said that under such familiar circumstances—Mr. Rainsy has spent about half the past decade in self-imposed exile to avoid threats of arrest—many CNRP supporters have found it hard to put much faith in the opposition.
“Remember that if you lead people with [your] head, people will use their heads to follow you. If you lead people with your heart, people will use their hearts to follow you. If you lead people with your life, people will use their lives to follow you,” Mr. Bunthet said.
“If you keep running when you face injustices, people will also run when they face injustices.”
In any case, the CNRP must seek to cultivate a culture and image of a professional party that is more like a government-in-waiting—with clear known policies promoted by a broad team—if it ever wishes to take over, said Mr. Virak of the Future Forum.
“If they were more calm and composed as an opposition, they might be seen as a more viable chance for taking over the government,” he said. “I understand their obsession with Hun Sen, but you can’t just keep kicking the dirt and screaming.”