On Saturday, Radio National Kampuchea shelved a program in which a group of lawmakers were set to discuss women’s issues because no CPP candidate showed up to talk. The ruling party has declined invitations to two political forums organized in Phnom Penh over the past two weeks, and an anticorruption pledging ceremony. NGOs also say that representatives of the CPP have failed to show up for numerous smaller debates organized across the country.
Despite efforts by NGOs and civil society organizations (CSO) to create a platform for Cambodia’s major political parties to discuss their policies prior to the national election on July 28, the CPP, which currently holds 90 of 123 seats in the National Assembly, has thus far declined to participate.
To some, the ruling party’s reticence to take part in public debates is starting to look like a policy.
“I think that [the CPP] doesn’t want to join debates because they are scared of people asking questions,” said Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democratic of Informal Economic Association, which organized a forum in Kompong Chhnang province on Thursday in which members of major political parties were invited to discuss land issues, human rights and corruption.
Mr. Pao said he has sent another letter inviting the CPP to send a representative to join a forum on similar issues in Sihanoukville on Wednesday. “Their answer [to the invitation] was ‘we will think about it.’ I don’t think they are going to attend. They never come,” he said.
Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, which, along with 14 other CSOs sponsored a political forum on June 6 covering education, land rights and governance, said that it was important to voters to hear the ruling party’s policy but that there was little he or others within civil society could do to engage the CPP.
“People and NGOs very much want the CPP to attend the forum. People vote for the party, so the party has to respond to the people,” he said.
“We have sent them letters, called them, and asked them to meet, but they have declined to come. We are holding another forum in Mondolkiri [on Wednesday]. I hope they come and join us, though I have only a small hope,” he said.
Another reason for the CPP’s absence might be that civil society is not high on the ruling party’s priority list, said Thida Khus, the chair of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics, which organized a forum on women’s issues last Wednesday in Phnom Penh.
“[P]eople in the CPP dare not move because they are afraid to make a mistake in interpreting and answering any of the critical questions that the people ask. For them, not saying is better than saying the wrong thing that may cause them to lose their position,” she said.
Kem Ley, a research consultant at the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, said that with its vast control of the media, there is little reason for the CPP to engage in direct exchanges with other political parties or voters.
“The CPP already have TV, radio and the newspapers—plenty of outlets to release information. I think if they attend these forums, they will face a lot of difficulty with participants asking about the day to day impacts of their policies,” he said.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that although the ruling party has received invitations to attend various forums and debates, its members are too busy preparing for July’s election to partake.
“I haven’t been in touch with them that much since we are facing time constraints right now. We are busy with the election campaign because the elections are approaching,” he said.
“I would like to inform them [NGOs] that we have done work related to democracy,” he added.
But although the CPP has not joined debates thus far, Laura Thornton, resident director of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Cambodia, said that she is optimistic that the CPP will take part in a televised debate and a number of radio debates to be held by her organization during the campaign period, which begins June 27.
“We met today with all political parties and they all signed a participation agreement, from all 8 parties including CPP,” she said, adding that the TV debate would be shown on state-controlled TVK, while radio debates would be broadcast on numerous stations in the country.
In order to facilitate the CPP’s participation, NDI first had to submit the structure of the debate to the National Election Committee, which demanded that it include all parties, rather than only those parties represented in the National Assembly, which Ms. Thornton said would have been preferable.
“The only thing we have to work out [for the TV debate] is good times, and I am afraid that for TVK, most of their time has already been gobbled up. So, I think we will have debates taking place late at night, which is not ideal,” she said.
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