The top Cambodian news story of the past year began early the morning of Feb 3, when millions of Cambodians dipped their fingers in black ink to mark ballots in local elections that they hoped would mark a continuation of their country’s tenuous climb out of the abyss.
The votes cast that day—and, especially, the votes not cast for the government’s junior coalition member, the royalist Funcinpec party—set off a round of politicking that gave shape and context to dozens of stories that played out this year.
The voting saw surprisingly strong gains by the Sam Rainsy Party, including control of six communes in Phnom Penh. The party now views Feb 3 as the day it transformed itself from a fringe element of Cambodia’s political spectrum to a legitimate force.
And the voting also revealed a flimsy Funcinpec hindered by poor planning and weak campaigns.
The dismal showing set the royalist party off on a year of turmoil and a public display of soul searching that went quiet only after party members were instructed to stop speaking to the press.
The political arc of 2002 takes an even larger significance when set against the near future: the 2003 national elections that are just months away.
The Cambodia Daily’s lead story the day after the commune council elections offered this telling detail: a voter, her finger freshly inked to prepare for voting, suddenly pulled her hand from a voting monitor’s grip and jokingly tried to mark the startled woman’s nose.
Giddy with the chance to cast votes in the first local balloting in more than a generation, voters turned out in huge numbers to make busy hives of the balloting stations.
The commune council elections gave people in each of Cambodia’s 1,621 communes—an administrative organization smaller than a district and usually comprised of just a handful of villages—the chance to choose a local leader for local issues.
In a nation where clean drinking water is rated a higher priority than a Khmer Rouge tribunal, according to an Asia Foundation survey, commune councils stand to become singularly important institutions.
The elections were labeled free and fair by the government, though cases of intimidation and worse were rampant and several observers condemned the ballots.
But it was the shifting political future of Cambodia that soon became apparent after the polls closed: The elections left a shaken Funcinpec arguing that it still had a voice in Cambodia, with party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh urging “We should not analyze this as a defeat of Funcinpec.”
In the months that followed, factions within the party sought to oust powerful co-Minister of Interior You Hockry, but failed to do anything other than expose the turmoil at the party’s core. A National Assembly vote in early August granted You Hockry control of his job.
While the royalist leadership appeared engaged in hopeless infighting, Funcinpec Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, a popular commander in the royalist’s former resistance, took it on himself to ignite party passions with a journey to his old battle grounds in Battambang. Upon arrival he delivered blistering denunciations of the ruling CPP for failing to give Cambodians the millions of dollars of international aid sent to Phnom Penh every year, a figure he said was worth $1,000 per person.
Through it all, Prince Ranariddh gave off the air of a man who knew too little, too late, acting as if there were few problems in the party worth getting worked up about.
He finally shook off his sleepy public persona with a strong statement that he was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s challenger in next year’s elections. Last week he urged the government to rethink its intention to kick the independent forestry monitor Global Witness out of the country—a direct contradiction of the premier’s call for the watchdog’s expulsion.
“Funcinpec is in a major transition,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “That transition can put Funcinpec in a very difficult position if Funcinpec does not respond to the changing needs and realities on the ground between now and the election time.
Shortly after Feb 3, Prince Ranariddh appointed his father’s half-brother, party Secretary General Prince Norodom Sirivudh, to head a task force examining Funcinpec’s political strength.
It’s been a sobering assignment, Prince Sirivudh said Monday.
“I think we must recognize that technically speaking, the Funcinpec structure was not appropriate to respond to the commune council elections. We learned lessons from this,” he said.
The party was not tightly organized at the village level, but that’s now changed, he said.
Attempts to contact CPP officials for this story were unsuccessful. Party spokesman Khieu Kanharith was busy with meetings Monday and unavailable for comment. But the ruling party is reportedly suffering its own internal struggles. Though the party has publicly proclaimed Hun Sen its only candidate for prime minister, observers say factions within his own party are for the first time mounting a viable challenge to the long-time strongman.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, though, discussed how 2002 saw his once struggling party take a dominant stand among the minor parties of Cambodia.
“It’s a turning point, not only for the Sam Rainsy Party but I think for Cambodia.”
Sam Rainsy said his party will benefit from the wave of new voters coming of age, many of them born in the baby boom that followed the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.
Politicians and observers will likely see more of the same trends that emerged in 2002, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development and a longtime watcher of Cambodia politics who claims allegiance to none of the major parties.
“I think that the success or the failure is the result of years of work. You cannot prepare yourself just nine months before the election to influence the people. So I feel that Sam Rainsy is doing good because Sam Rainsy is representing the voice of the people.
“The CPP tries to buy the conscience of the people by silencing them, by the one-way street of a sense of loyalty, of gratitude.” Prince Ranariddh, meanwhile, must strike a difficult balance in the coming year.
“It seems like he is in a very hard position, walking on a tightrope, to maintain both the monarchy and the political party. The prince is in a very hard position, harder than any other leader of a political party.”