With the passing of Monday’s deadline for submitting candidates for July’s national election, it is now certain that voters will find themselves with fewer choices than in any previous election.
At most, 12 political parties will be represented on the ballot, about half of the 23 that vied for National Assembly seats in 2003 and less than a third of the 39 that campaigned in 1998.
Political observers say the sharp reduction in the number of competitors may be the result of growing discouragement among smaller parties that failed to make an impression at the 1998 and 2003 elections. Other factors, observers said, might be the introduction of the “50-percent-plus-one amendment” and a possible shift in the strategies of the larger parties.
But what the absence of the Rice Party, the Khmer Spiritual Aspiration Party or the Farmer’s Party means for the outcome of the election remains unclear, with many disagreeing over the significance of the party drop-off.
“This political system does not encourage multi-party participation,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
The 1993 UN-sponsored election used a formula that allowed smaller parties an opportunity to win seats, and one such party, Molinaka, did snag a single seat. But the government changed the formula ahead of the 1998 poll, giving strong preference to larger parties, particularly the one that receives the most votes in a given constituency, Koul Panha said. In 2003, he noted, the CPP won slightly more than 47 percent of the popular vote, but took 59 percent of seats in the Assembly.
Running a political campaign is expensive, and many smaller parties lack access to enough funding to make a real stab at winning an Assembly seat, he said.
Small parties might have gone into previous elections wide-eyed and eager, Koul Panha said, but “after 1998 and 2003, they are aware of these obstacles to participation.”
Small parties also feel marginalized by the National Election Committee, he said, because the larger parties have representatives at the NEC to further their causes, while the small parties do not.
Political observer Chea Vannath said one reason the 2008 ballot will have fewer boxes to check is the introduction during the current mandate of the 50-percent-plus-one amendment to the Constitution.
Going into the 2003 election, a party needed two-thirds of the Assembly’s 123 seats to form a government. It was an unlikely number of seats to win at the time, which meant the majority party would still need to form a coalition government.
In the coming election, a party needs only a simple majority to control the Assembly, which is a number of seats already surpassed by the ruling CPP in the current Parliament.
“Some of the small parties are opportunists, but 50-percent-plus-one means there is not much need for opportunists” looking to join a coalition, Chea Vannath said.
Some smaller parties in the past have also received support from bigger parties as a way to siphon votes from their competitors. Now, the larger players may have decided that such a strategy “did not [add] enough value to their campaigns,” she said.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said the decline in smaller parties registering for the 2008 election is likely the result of poor planning, as well as financial and human resource issues.
The reduction also represented a general shift in the electoral process in Cambodia as the country becomes a more mature democracy, he said.
“At the start of democracy, there were many political parties; now it is a mature democracy, so it leads to a decline in [the number of] political parties,” he said.
“When people understand about democracy, they focus on the party they believe can develop the country. When small parties have no ability, they withdraw.”
Puthea Hang, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, said having more parties means more competition in the political arena and gives more choices to the voters.
“The decline is not good for democracy,” he said.
However, Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said fewer parties on the election ballot was definitely a step in the right direction.
“The day we have two or three parties running [in] the election, then we will have a more mature democracy,” she said.
The most important thing right now for improving democracy, Kek Galabru said, is to create a strong opposition that could effectively check and balance the government. But having 12 parties running against each other in the election lessened the chance of such a likelihood come July, she said.
“The people who vote for the ruling party are not confused, they know where they stand,” Kek Galabru said. “But other voters are confused by the other 11 [parties], many of which have the same platform: human rights, helping the poor,” she said.
“As a result, people have to vote based on individuals or the leaders of the party and not on its principles, and that is sad,” she said.
Chea Vannath said that she, too, believes that too many parties still share the ballot, and rejected the idea that fewer parties leads to too few choices for voters.
Even just among the nation’s larger parties, Cambodians already have a full and colorful range of options to choose from, she said.
“We have the royalists, the non-royalists, the republicans and the former socialists—all we’re missing is the Green Party.”