Hoping for Rewards, but Big Risk in Opposition’s Merger

After four years of failed efforts to form a united opposition party, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha met last year on July 17 in Manila and finally signed on to an agreement to merge the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP) prior to July’s national election.

–News Analysis

That gave them exactly one year and 11 days to formalize their agreement, settle on a new name, hammer out a party platform, agree on a candidate list, post party signs across the country and, most importantly, introduce the new party to about 9 million eligible voters before the poll on July 28.

Though officials of the recently formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) say uniting forces will bolster the opposition’s chances in the national election, analysts said this week that the decision to form a coalition was also a huge risk considering the ruling CPP’s powerful brand and ingrained roots in all spheres of society.

“[The merger] could have been done earlier,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay. “They could have merged before commune elections [in 2012] and used that as a testing ground,” he said.

In fact, the decision to merge was only made after the outcome from last year’s commune elections in June showed encouraging results for the HRP.

Before that, the leaders of both the SRP and HRP still believed that they could go it alone, said SRP a lawmaker Son Chhay, who is candidate for the CNRP in July’s election.

“We had leaders who be­lieved…that they are themselves the best leader and they can convince people to vote for them, but look at the results from elections, especially the commune election. The SRP was disappointed, we lost many commune councilor seats,” he said.

In the commune elections, the two opposition parties were able to secure only 40 of the country’s 1,633 commune chief seats. And although the SRP outdid the HRP—22 seats to 18—the SRP lost six commune chief spots, and it was the HRPs first time contesting the commune ballot.

“This caused Sam Rainsy to think twice about merging, but more seriously this time,” Mr. Chhay said. “And Kem Sokha too. By himself, he was not going to make any difference if he continued to run on his own without merging with [the] SRP.”

Together, the two parties are now protecting 29 seats in the National Assembly—26 for the SRP and 3 for the HRP. Mr. Rainsy is president of the CNRP and Mr. Sokha is vice president.

However, given the tight timeframe in which the CNRP has had to promote its party and convince supporters that the other side in the merger can be trusted, analysts said it remained to be seen how the coalition would fare in the election.

Moreover, the party now has to convince voters that Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha, who have had an antagonistic relationship in the past, are on the same page.

Prior to their meeting in Manila, Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy’s relationship was defined more by their hostility toward each other than their common opposition to Mr. Hun Sen.

A promised merger between the HRP and SRP in 2011 fell apart after a recorded telephone conversation between Mr. Sokha and Prime Minister Hun Sen was leaked in May of that year. During the conversation, which reportedly took place in 2007, Mr. Hun Sen is heard advising Mr. Sokha on how to poach members from the SRP. Mr. Rainsy said at the time that it would be impossible to merge with the HRP when their leader was an enemy of the opposition.

The insults that Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy hurled at each other on the campaign trail prior to the 2008 national election are now being broadcast on state-affiliated and CPP-friendly radio stations in a campaign to undermine the new merger.

“It’s hard to change a logo, to change an identity,” said independent political analyst Chea Vannath. “The CPP have had only one logo for the last 20 years. [The new opposition party] might present a problem in the timing for people, especially in rural areas to make sure people are aware of the change and to remember and learn about [the new] logo and name,” she said.

SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who is also a candidate for the CNRP, said that her party has recently finished replacing old SRP and HRP signs with the new party logo, an orange and yellow sun rising above the horizon.

“People have always said to us that they want us to be united, but in 2008 and 2012 we didn’t listen,” she said.

Convincing the public of cohesion within the CNRP is not the opposition’s only challenge. The party is also effectively blocked from broadcast media, which slam the opposition in its programs on a daily basis, said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.

“Because of lack of access to broadcast media, particularly TV, the [CNRP] cannot explain to supporters about the importance of this combination of the two parties,” Mr. Nariddh said.

“Supporters on both sides—HRP and SRP—are still wondering whether they should trust each other. The newly established CNRP does not have enough resources and enough time to explain to…respective supporters the significance of having one big opposition,” he added.

As the government tightens its control of an already compliant national media leading up to election, Mr. Hun Sen has also been ramping up his rhetoric against the opposition.

In March, Mr. Hun Sen compared the new opposition parties to two brands of whiskey that have been mixed together and rebottled with a different label. Last week, he said that elements within the opposition were aiming to topple the monarchy. On Wednesday, the prime minister likened the CNRP to the Khmer Rouge, claiming that if the opposition were to win the election, it would eliminate banks in the country by lowering interest rates on loans.

Mr. Chhay said that in order to counter Mr. Hun Sen’s claims, the CNRP is dispatching its members to each of the country’s 1,633 communes armed with policy booklets outlining the CNRP’s promises to raise wages, institute a modest social security program, offer free health care and stabilize commodity prices.

“We have to work 100 times harder than CPP with their media broadcasting. We wish that we had one hour of television a day so we can show this to the country, but we don’t,” he said.

“If we merged for [the] 2008 election, we would really have a far better position for this election,” he added.

Speaking from France, where he is in self-imposed exile after being sentenced to 11 years in jail on charges of incitement and the destruction of property, Mr. Rainsy said the time had come to unite and mount a serious challenge against the CPP.

“It took some time to realize that it is absolutely necessary to put aside some differences—we have much more in common. The democratic force must be united to topple the CPP,” he said.

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