Members of Funcinpec gathered in small groups across the country on Friday to celebrate the royalist party’s 22nd anniversary, but members said Sunday the event was not an annual congress and said the party was not likely to hold one before the election.
With just five months until the general elections, and facing a rash of defections from disillusioned party members, party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh gave a speech in Kompong Cham, which was also taped and broadcast to Funcinpec offices throughout the country.
“In the past 10 years, Cambodia has come out of political isolation [and] enjoys peace and development,” the prince said in a statement issued to the media. “However, the people of Cambodia continue to face life-threatening risks which include widespread poverty, violations of territorial borders, violence and crime.”
The prince also said that Funcinpec’s coalition with the ruling CPP was “a necessity to maintain stability and personal security for the people and such a coalition is a fundamental base for Cambodia to move forward.”
The prince’s statement was more tame than the motivating speech he gave at last congress, held exactly one year ago, when he vowed that Funcinpec would be more outspoken and critical of the CPP. Officials said then that the party had suffered in the commune elections because of its deference to the ruling party.
Despite the prince’s assurances that the party would speak up, the past year instead has been marred by political infighting and the recent defections of a handful of party members.
Party members said Sunday, though, that the choice not to hold a congress had been calculated, and that it had strengthened the party’s political position.
“This is a new party strategy,” said Serey Kosal, deputy secretary-general for Funcinpec. “Other political parties couldn’t estimate the strategy.”
The party had no plans to hold a congress until after the elections, Serey Kosal said.
The anniversary celebration was more effective than a congress, anyway, he said, because the Funcinpec headquarters in Phnom Penh can only hold 10,000 members. The anniversary celebration reached all members, he said. Party leadership had also been fearful that a mass gathering of Funcinpec members in Phnom Penh could be construed as a demonstration, he said.
Provincial Funcinpec officials said Sunday that having a scattered celebration allowed more party members to participate.
“In the past, our congress has been held in Phnom Penh, and all our supporters couldn’t join,” said Meng Suon, deputy governor of Kampot province. “But now this year, all Funcinpec supporters are happy. They came from everywhere to join our [anniversary], and they know well about Funcinpec’s strategy for the general elections in the coming days.”
Keat Sokun, director for the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said Sunday that the absence of a central congress ahead of an election could go either well or poorly for a political party.
“Normally a congress is important, but I don’t understand why Funcinpec makes this strategy,” he said.
A ceremony shared among party members throughout the province could let representatives meet local people and “activate the people.”
On the other hand, he said, “you don’t allow [party members] from the provinces to have a chance to ask questions.”
That could mean they don’t understand the party’s strategy for the election, he said.
However, at least one Funcinpec member was confident that local members didn’t need a chance to ask questions.
“My province has no problem for the election,” said Vorn Chhunly, first deputy governor of Kratie province.
Political preparations that are “decentralized” could have more impact on voters at a local level, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
It also saves money, she said. “They tried to do more with less.”
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Tioulong Saumura said Sunday that Funcipec’s choice not to have a congress would make little difference against her party’s position in the upcoming election.
“I find it odd,” she said. “That’s not the kind of thing you do when you are in an election year.”
Party congresses can be useful for motivating party members ahead of campaigning.
“Conviction and faith should be at the maximum level,” she said.
Provincial Funcinpec members said Sunday that the anniversary had served as a helpful reminder of the party’s ideals.
“Most of the people still love the Funcinpec party,” said Bun Sovann, Funcinpec first deputy governor of Preah Vihear province. “People are happy to participate in the anniversary.”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Kay Kimsong)