With the 2008 national election scheduled to take place in just under six months, reform has become a buzzword for political parties seeking to snag National Assembly seats.
The SRP is coming into 2008 having made numerous changes to its internal structure from the commune level on up. Reform was the message of choice for speakers at Funcinpec’s national congress in October, and more changes are on the way, according to party officials.
Even Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, despite its lengthy pre-eminence in the political arena, has made some internal adjustments as of late, according to one senior CPP official, and political analysts say the party may be considering further changes.
The most comprehensive reforms have been made by the SRP, which completed a process in 2007 that culminated in intra-party elections at the commune, district, provincial and national levels.
SRP President Sam Rainsy said this week the internal reforms were meant to appeal to supporters by demonstrating to them their ability to actively participate in the party.
It was also meant to inspire the party leadership to respond more closely to the needs of grassroots party members by making their jobs dependent on keeping supporters and their votes.
“Now candidates stop looking up, they are looking at the grassroots level,” Sam Rainsy said. “They must please their constituencies, not the [party] leadership.”
The SRP’s reform program, instituted initially with the assistance of the US-based National Democratic Institute and later the International Republican Institute, has led to major shakeups, said IRI Resident Country Director John Willis.
“At the commune level and the district level there was a lot of churning [in the SRP],” Willis said, noting that there was also a shift in the party’s secretary-general position, with Eng Chhay Eang winning a tightly contested election over the sitting—and popular—secretary-general, Mu Sochua.
Sam Rainsy said the result of internal reforms was demonstrated by the party’s strong performance in last April’s commune elections, where the SRP doubled the number of commune councilor seats it collected in 2002.
Noticeable gains were made during that election in areas where the party had already held internal elections, he said, with vote tallies being weaker in areas that had not yet held elections.
National Assembly First Vice President and CPP permanent committee member Nguon Nhel said the ruling party has initiated some minor reforms in its candidate selection process for the 2008 election, transferring the final say on candidates to provincial party committees rather than the national authority.
Ahead of the last national election in 2003, the CPP provincial committees presented a list of potential candidates to the party’s powerful permanent committee in Phnom Penh, Nguon Nhel said. The permanent committee would then select the final candidates and their order on the ballot list.
This time around, however, the CPP national authority is going to select the potential candidates and let the provincial committees finalize the list.
If a CPP provincial committee does not like the selections offered by the permanent committee in Phnom Penh, it can return the list and ask that a new candidate be selected.
Nguon Nhel, however, said he doubted that this would happen.
He also said voters can expect to see some new faces on the CPP ballot list this year, as the party was looking to replace some lawmakers that were considered too inactive during this last mandate.
“Some lawmakers were quiet; they will not be allowed to continue as lawmaker candidates,” Nguon Nhel said. “This is reform. We want those who are most qualified.”
Ailing from a critical divide among royalist supporters and a dismal showing in the commune elections, Funcinpec is also looking to change things around in the hopes of retaining a footing in the National Assembly.
To that end, the party will hold a large gathering at its Phnom Penh headquarters next month geared at reforming the process by which its election candidates are selected, Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
According to Nhiek Bun Chhay, Funcinpec representatives from the village, commune and district levels will vote to create the election candidate lists for the 2008 poll.
In previous elections candidates were chosen unilaterally by former Funcinpec president Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was ousted from the party in October 2006.
“[Funcinpec’s national leadership] won’t nominate the lawmakers,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said, adding that the idea was to make the candidates feel indebted to their constituents.
Despite the input of representatives at the forthcoming Funcinpec meetings, they alone will not have final say on who becomes a candidate for the election, Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
The names selected by supporters must still be weighed by Funcinpec’s steering committee, which will take into consideration a candidate’s seniority, along with the amount of time and money he or she has given to the party.
Despite a measure of reform, Funcinpec’s selection process keeps more in line with how many view the prevailing political culture.
“Right now, candidacy is based more on your status in the party, your relationship with the [party] leaders and your ability to ‘afford to run,’” said Jerome Cheung, resident country director of the National Democratic Institute.
That culture is changing though.
Through a program that brings lawmakers and ordinary people together in dialogue, NDI has seen a marked change in the way that ordinary Cambodians address their politicians, Cheung said.
“What we’ve noticed is that people are much more willing to speak out, to complain…. There is an evolving sense of civic entitlement and civic involvement,” he said.
“I think all the parties here recognize the need to change, to become more open, because it has become more competitive,” Cheung said.
Sam Rainsy said that unlike previous elections, where the party’s president and board of directors chose election candidates, the selections this time will be made by the SRP provincial councils. Those provincial councils were in turn selected through a series of internal elections going back to supporters at the village level.
Cheung said those internal elections also served as a means for the SRP to organize its supporters.
Ahead of the 2003 election, Cheung said, the SRP did not even have a complete list of party supporters, making it difficult to coordinate its followers nationwide.
By holding grassroots elections, the SRP has now compiled those lists and will bring that knowledge and support into this year’s election campaign, Cheung added.