The Cambodian Peoples Party didn’t get to the top of the heap by handing out free monosodium glutamate to voters, despite what its rivals claim.
Party officials say the CPP is the country’s dominant political force because it is by far the best-organized and most efficient party in Cambodia.
And while critics decry its “stranglehold” on politics, claiming the party uses every trick in its considerable arsenal to hold on to power, CPP officials say voters will note some differences in this election season.
As many as one in three of the CPP’s commune chiefs, those whose voters have already told party surveys they don’t like, may not be running for office in the commune council elections in February. The CPP also hopes to field more female candidates.
“We probably won’t hand out free MSG and tiger balm, like we did in 1998,” said one top CPP official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The party has come to understand that, while voters like the freebies, it gives an impression of vote-buying and doesn’t look good, the official said.
Besides, the CPP can marshal much stronger inducements to win votes, the official said. Gift bags of sarongs, rice and cash last just a short time, the official said, but the CPP’s real achievements are more significant.
The official’s list included an end to the civil war, the dissolution of the last Khmer Rouge bands, steady if slow improvements in the economy, and progress from an essentially lawless society to one increasingly shaped by regulation.
“The people will understand this clearly,” the official said.
The commune council elections mark the first time the CPP faces a direct challenge to the local power bases it has held for more than 20 years.
And while some critics say they the CPP to resort to force and intimidation to control that base, other observers say the CPP is not a monolith, and there are indications of reform elements
within the party’s ranks.
“My party has the same mindset as an athletic team,” said Mam Sarin, deputy director of the CPP cabinet. “We can compete in this democratic game.”
The CPP’s roots stretch back to early 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove the collapsing Khmer Rouge regime into the northwest.
With the invading army were a collection of former Khmer Rouge regulars who had earlier fled that regime as it began killing its own members. Many in that group today hold top positions in Cambodia: Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly Vice President Heng Samrin.
The party established a powerful grassroots network in the Vietnamese Communist tradition, with a clear-cut heirarchy of appointed loyalists extending from village chiefs on up the ladder.
In the years since, there have been rumors of splits and divisions within the party, with a conservative wing loyal to its communist roots led by Chea Sim and a younger, more progressive element led by Hun Sen.
But compared to other Cambodian parties, which seem to splinter into factions on a weekly basis, the CPP has been solid as a rock.
Unlike Funcinpec, which critics say is reluctant to replace unpopular or ineffective leaders, the CPP appears to have learned from its losses in 1998, when despite its three million members, it saw one-third of the National Assembly seats go to other parties.
According to one CPP official, the party’s goal in 2002 is to hold on to the two-thirds vote it received in 1998, and try to add to that majority.
CPP officials have made it clear that up to 30 percent of its commune chiefs may be missing from the candidate lists when they are posted later this month. Those who are unpopular or who have performed poorly will be replaced by more appealing candidates.
In Takeo province, for example, the CPP has actively courted attractive candidates to run for office, said Uch Chan, a CPP candidate in Chambak commune, Bati district.
“Our party needs representatives that are capable and popular among the public,” Uch Chan said. Party loyalty is important but candidates also need to be able to win, he added.
The CPP is also clear-eyed about its own capabilities, acknowledging it is stronger in the countryside than in the cities.
They hope to do a bit better this time around, reasoning that voters now know other parties have failed to keep some of the promises made before the 1998 elections.
In Phnom Penh, for example, CPP Governor Chea Sophara has pushed through one quality-of-life project after another, from replacing squalid squatter villages with landscaped parks to paving more streets and improving the water supply.
There is no doubt the CPP is more effective because it has more money than the other parties. CPP officials boast they have “sources of money that never dry up.”
The party insists the money comes from legitimate sources, including the 200 riel monthly dues paid by more than three million members ($150,000), plus voluntary donations from affluent party members and private businesses.
Members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party say the CPP gets much of its cash from embezzlement and graft, allegations CPP officials vehemently deny.
Critics point to the more than 2,000 schools built by Hun Sen and named for him or his wife, Bun Rany, questioning how the prime minister pays for them. Hun Sen insists the money comes from his family budget or from generous supporters, including overseas Cambodians who back the party.
According to one top party official, the prime minister “is not rich, but he is a good leader, who can raise clean money among the rich here and abroad, in order to help develop the countryside.”
While money surely helps, the party’s virtual lock on the nation’s broadcast media may be even more of an advantage in the largely illiterate countryside.
Whenever and wherever disaster strikes, CPP officials are seen on TV dispensing aid and comfort to the poor.
“You never see me during the good times, but when you are in trouble, you always meet my face,” the prime minister likes to say.
Party officials do not dispute the advantages they have accrued during more than 20 years in power. But they say the CPP remains powerful because its members understand the benefits of working together and maintaining party discipline.
That is why they polled voters in Phnom Penh, typically a weak area for the CPP, to see which candidates would be most appealing. That is why they are placing the most popular and potentially capable candidates high on their lists, and lopping off those who voters dislike.
Party officials say once the leadership has decided on a strategy, the rank-and-file fall into line to carry it out.
And while critics say that shows the party is still essentially Communist in practice, party officials disagree, arguing the new CPP allows much more democratic debate within its meetings as it settles on those strategies.
They say their political rivals harm only themselves by constant allegations that the CPP is some kind of Cambodian mafia, committed to hanging on to power by resorting to every sort of crime, up to and including murder.
So far this year, four commune council candidates have been killed, three from the Sam Rainsy Party and one from Funcinpec. Police officials have been ridiculed for labeling the killings as due to “personal disputes” or even sorcery, but one top CPP official says the other parties are just as quick to claim they know what happened—before that can possibly be true.
“Whenever the killings happen, a moment later they call it a political killing, blaming the CPP with no investigation,” the official said.