Plenty of Mud, Paucity of Policy, in Election Discourse

Election campaigns are seldom clean.

Political debates stray from policy to the personal: remember President Barack Obama’s country of birth being questioned during last year’s U.S. election?

But policies should prevail at the ballot box.

–News Analysis

So far, in the run-up to July’s national election, the main issues of inter-party contention have not been the country’s struggling health system, under-funded education sector, poverty reduction, job creation or the ever-present cost of corruption.

Rather, the debate has lurched back to old narratives: Who is a Vietnamese puppet? Who is a terrorist? Who loves the monarchy more? And, who saved the country, or caused its destruction, in the 1970s?

While the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has referenced Prime Minister Hun Sen and his colleagues’ Khmer Rouge pasts in their campaign, the CPP for their part has labeled the opposition “genocide-deniers” and terrorists, bent on destroying the monarchy and the nation.

The allegations have prompted a bizarre back-and-forth between both sides, each claiming to abhor the Pol Pot regime more while in turn accusing the other of being Khmer Rouge or Vietnamese sympathizers.

The opposition has long-attacked Hun Sen for his close ties to Vietnam—which helped install him and the CPP’s other top leaders after toppling the Khmer Rouge in 1979—and just this week, at a press conference, SRP lawmaker Kong Korm referred to the Vietnamese with a common ethnic slur: “Yuon.” The CNRP’s self-exiled leader, Sam Rainsy, has also used the derogative to refer to the Vietnamese and frequently calls the CPP Vietnamese puppets.

Pre-empting the descent into pre-election politics as usual, U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi, during his visit to the country last week—without naming any names—called on parties not to use racist rhetoric in the run-up to the election.

Beyond the name-calling, which may escalate to street protests next week, neither the ruling CPP nor the CNRP has mentioned very much about their actual platforms, or how they intend to achieve them.

The CNRP has promised a higher minimum wage for both garment workers and civil servants—something the CPP has labeled a pipe-dream because of the prohibitive cost to the state—while the CPP has both promised a continuation of economic growth if it is re-elected and, alternatively, warned of complete social chaos should they lose.

“It’s mudslinging all round,” said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst, describing the level of political discourse in the run-up to elections. “Trying to discredit your opponent as much as possible.”

“The CPP has no new policies actually, so instead of talking about policies, they’re talking about personalities…. Their platform is too general, the CPP don’t have anything specific [except] emphasizing economic growth and development.”

Mr. Mong Hay was kinder to the CNRP.

“I think the opposition have articulated their ideas rather well. There’s been a move to focused policy, but the problem is they don’t have access to media so [government] media’s drowned out their policies.”

Asked whether he thought Cambodians should be disappointed with the lack of concrete debate on policies that could improve their lives, Mr. Mong Hay hinted that here, at least, the politicians were not entirely to blame.

“That’s the problem with our culture, we don’t have much public spirit. If it doesn’t affect people directly, they don’t care.”

Kem Ley, director of an independent research consultancy in Phnom Penh, described the level of debate as “the same old story,” adding that both parties need to move with the times, leave their old tactics behind, and engage with the electorate, particularly in rural areas.

“The government still uses the same policies as they have for the last 20 years and the opposition…have no new ideas to compete with the government,” he said.

“The opposition always fights against the government on Vietnam…. Since the first election in 1993, the government always blames the opposition of being linked to…terrorists trying to topple the government,” he said.

“Both parties spend a lot of resources to fight each other, but lose time to mention policy, like health care and education,” he said.

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