It was a classic Cambodian pre-election pageant: a roomful of former opposition supporters wearing crisp white CPP T-shirts and caps, giving up their fight against the ruling party.
Vey Samnang, the Kompong Speu provincial governor who presided over yesterday’s defection ceremony, said their reasons for switching to the CPP were clear.
“They registered because they lost faith in the CNRP and they noticed that they always make donations to them, and the CNRP never helps the community in return,” Mr. Samnang said. “They also noticed that the government and CPP increased salaries for government officials and garment factory workers.”
The ritual was repeated across the country over the holiday weekend, according to government mouthpiece Fresh News, which reported at least 600 changed hearts and minds in ceremonies from Banteay Meanchey province to Phnom Penh.
But analysts say the well- worn CPP tactic of defections and handouts have lost muscle in the wake of the ruling party’s near-defeat in the 2013 elections—and the party shows few signs of acknowledging the need to bring youth and new ideas to its campaigns.
“There’s not any net effect on the opposition party,” political analyst Cham Bunthet said. “Probably they do not have a better way of doing things.”
Introduced with headlines like “Losing Their Faith in the Leader” and “CNRP Continues to Split!” Fresh News presented what seemed to be a wave of defections by more than 300 opposition converts in Banteay Meanchey province, 95 in Koh Kong province and 47 in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district, and local opposition leaders elsewhere.
The newest ruling party members were fleeing a divided, corrupt opposition, Fresh News reported—echoing the CPP’s campaign rhetoric—and were supposedly trading up to the party that had brought peace and development to their communes. CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann described the ceremonies as “useless,” saying the practice actually drew voters into the arms of the opposition.
“The more they use that strategy, the more that they will lose,” he predicted.
The CPP has long made a spectacle of opposition members breaking ranks with their party. In the run up to the 2008 national election, it openly offered ministry undersecretary-of-state positions to senior opposition party members, with Prime Minister Hun Sen offering hundreds of government adviser jobs to defectors.
In 2013, Major General Kem Sokhon, a former opposition politician and the estranged brother of CNRP President Kem Sokha, toured the country singing the praises of the ruling party.
If Fresh News is any indication,the party’s shock near-loss in the 2013 vote seems to have done little to dampen the CPP’s enthusiasm for the strategy, or for its proclivity for handing out small amounts of cash to voters and constructing public projects like roads or wells in similar ceremonies held for party faithful over the holiday weekend.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan attributed the CNRP’s surge in 2013 to a “change in formula” of a united opposition rather than any net reduction in voters’ support for the ruling party or a failed CPP campaign strategy.
“In the general election of 2013, the CNRP reached its high point, and in the 2018 general election, it will fall from that peak,” he said, claiming that the defections over the weekend highlighted the party’s fall from grace.
But Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University specializing in Cambodian politics, said her research highlighted the apparent futility of election handouts in persuading 2013 voters. She said the CPP would do well to read the last election as a mandate to focus on specific policies voters demanded.
“Showing determination to further the reform agenda that was commenced during this mandate period in reaction to the issues that surfaced in 2013 would be an important overture to voters,” she wrote in an email yesterday. “It would be a smart move for the new generation of CPP leaders to insist on this.”
Those young leaders represent an untapped resource to move the CPP’s campaign efforts past ineffective tactics like handouts and defections, according to Mr. Bunthet.
The analyst, who advises the fledgling Grassroots Democracy Party, said that if he held a similar position at the CPP, he would deploy the party’s “young, elite, dynamic people” to run for seats and persuade voters fed up with old-guard politicians who were seen as complacent at best, and at worst corrupt.
“The only reason that the CPP is weak is that they don’t know how to use those people.”