Initial Scenes Evoke 1998 Vote Turmoil

It began with intimidation, vote-buying and counting irregularities and was followed by the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec vowing against a coalition with the victorious CPP if Hun Sen remained prime minister.

Massive protests surged in Phnom Penh followed inevitably by violence and ruthless police suppression until the eventual formation, months later, of a CPP-Funcinpec coalition government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sound like a recap of Sunday’s election and speculation on the political shape of things to come? Think again. Think 1998.

Cambodia elections are drawing to another controversial close, and the CPP’s apparent victory—judged acceptable on the sliding rule used by many international observers to measure democracy in Cambodia—has again brought Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party together in opposition to Hun Sen.

Five years ago, after the last election, thousands of people took to the streets to show their disdain for a prime minister who had proven too popular, or crafty, to be beaten at the ballot box.

Many protested and some died in 1998.

As this year’s results emerge and the CPP is accused of misdeeds, Cambodia again appears headed in the direction of a 1998-style stalemate, and according to diplomats, most probably a 1998-style solution.

The question is, with three eligible coalition partners, who will crack first—the Funcinpec-Sam Rainsy Party alliance, or Hun Sen’s decades-old grip on power?

“[Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party] have the right to vote or not to vote for any candidate for the premiership. According to what we have already stated, we do not vote for Hun Sen as a candidate,” Sam Rainsy said at a joint press conference with Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh on Tuesday.

“The CPP has to resolve this problem,” Sam Rainsy said.

Rounds of applause rose and smiles cracked wide on the faces of supporters from both parties who attended the conference heralding the formation of a “liaison committee” to coordinate inter-party efforts to find electoral justice and bring “change” to Cambodia.

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh was not at the conference because he was “too busy,” a royalist official said.

The CPP appeared unperturbed on Tuesday, saying they would rule as usual until a coalition partner came in from the cold.

“It’s up to them. The door is open. If [Funcinpec or the Sam Rainsy Party] don’t want to walk in we go ahead with the old [government]… The old one will continue,” CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.

According to Khieu Kanharith, the Constitution stipulates that the incumbent government must not be dissolved until a new government is formed, and if neither party cooperates then the old administration continues.

Despite the current post-election bluster, it would likely be Funcinpec who joins the next coalition government, he said.

“How can you say you are a democratic party and not respect the decision of the people? You can’t be a democrat,” he said.

Hun Sen has scheduled a Cabinet meeting of ministers for next week, and if Funcinpec’s ministerial contingent does not attend, it will mean they have “quit” their posts, Khieu Kanharith said. Lower-ranking members of Funcinpec will then be encouraged to take over ministerial duties, he added.

“They will have to accept the reality… I don’t think the CPP, having won really well, will want to ditch Hun Sen,” said an Asian diplomat who branded the unfolding situation pre-government “horse trading.”

Opinions also differed inside the opposition on the feasibility of a royalist political alliance.

“We will watch Ranariddh very carefully…. But we consider him a better partner than Hun Sen,” opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said earlier on Tuesday.

Son Chhay said Funcinpec members had warned him that a coalition with Hun Sen would lead the opposition down the same politically destructive path as Funcinpec had trod.

“I told them don’t worry about us. Worry about your own party,” Son Chhay said.

While positions seem entrenched and some in Phnom Penh prepare for the worst, Tuesday’s conference offered a way out.

Asked if King Norodom Sihanouk’s intervention could defuse the situation, Sam Rainsy said he welcomed the King’s hand in a solution.


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