As Vote Nears, Cambodia’s Leader Has Opponents, but No Competition

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — It’s election season in Cambodia, and the fireflies are out.

Cambodians use that term — “ampil ampik,” in the Khmer language — to refer to little-known political parties that flash onto the scene shortly before an election, then fade back into obscurity.

Twenty parties, some just a few months old, will be on the ballot when national elections are held this month. But most voters will have heard of only one: the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, the authoritarian prime minister.

Mr. Hun Sen has had no viable opposition since November, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party — which almost won the 2013 election — was dissolved by a court packed with his loyalists. The United Nations special rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, and numerous rights groups have said the July 29 vote will not be legitimate.

In response, the government points to such obscure entities as the Dharmacracy Party, the Khmer Will Party and the New Light Party (whose platform is to promote “Cambodia’s natural, linguistic and alphabetical wonders”).

“If you have only one political party, you cannot say ‘multiparty,’ but we have 20 political parties,” said Dim Sovannarom, a spokesman for the National Election Committee.

Mr. Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, is clearly concerned that Cambodians will see it differently. In May, he warned against using the terms “fireflies” or “disembodied ghosts,” another figure of speech sometimes applied to minor parties.

“Twenty parties will join the election,” he said in a speech. “This is not a joke.”

Some “fireflies” are led by familiar faces, like Nhek Bun Chhay of the Khmer National United Party, an ex-warlord who spent nine months in jail on drug charges before being abruptly released in May.

Other newly minted politicians seem to have come out of nowhere, like the woman who says a magical spirit possessed her and instructed her to enter politics.

“The introduction of new parties, most of which are minor and insignificant, is specifically designed to uphold the facade of electoral competition,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia who studies Cambodian politics.

He said that maintaining the trappings of electoral democracy helps Cambodia avoid sanctions, get appointed to international bodies and keep receiving foreign aid and investment — even though it is now, he said, effectively a one-party state.

The leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or C.N.R.P., have been jailed or driven into exile, and lower-ranking members were harassed into joining Mr. Hun Sen’s party or getting out of politics. Mr. Hun Sen has also overseen a crackdown on the press.

The United States and the European Union, which have helped fund past Cambodian elections, refused this year, saying that the vote will not be credible.

But the government says there will be international election monitors — from China, Myanmar and Singapore, none of which are known as vigorous exponents of pluralist democracy. (China is helping to pay for the elections, as is Japan, a longtime donor to Cambodia.)

Even as the government paints the vote as a vibrant democratic exercise, Cambodians seem underwhelmed.

“Nobody wants to watch a one-horse race,” said Ou Virak, head of a local research institute, Future Forum, who said he had seen little of the energy and voter engagement that surrounded past elections.

“Even the supporter of that one horse will not go out to watch it because it makes no sense,” he said.

This week, in a text message sent to mobile subscribers across Cambodia, the National Election Committee warned parties and their supporters that “criticizing, attacking or comparing their party policies to other parties” was forbidden.

A Phnom Penh tuk-tuk driver named Ngor said he still enjoyed recalling the raucous excitement of 2013, when he and his friends staked beers and cows on the outcome of the close vote. Now, he said, he is not interested in voting at all.

Ngor, like other ordinary Cambodians asked about the election, did not want his full name published because he feared for his safety. The government has said that urging people not to vote — or even publicly proclaiming one’s own intention to stay home — can be considered illegal.

Mr. Ou Virak said such comments verged on intimidation, especially in rural areas, where many fear that if they do not vote their absence will be noticed and punished by local Cambodian People’s Party officials.

“The best thing would be to make the election itself credible and the competition lively and one where people do feel there is a reason to go vote,” he said.

Instead, in a giddy bubble of insignificance, the young parties are bustling through the political motions, setting up party headquarters, creating logos and drafting bylaws.

At a recent debate organized by the state-run Royal Academy of Cambodia, bags of cookies were distributed to the smattering of onlookers who showed up. An elderly representative of the Cambodian Light Party, which was created in April, looked sleepy as he took the microphone.

“Our party is very young and I am very old, and a young party doesn’t understand or know much about political work, so please forgive me if I make any mistakes,” he began.

On the other side of the dais was the Khmer Republican Party, led by the son of Lon Nol, a former president whose regime was famously so incompetent and corrupt that it fueled the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

The son, Lon Rith, is now based in Philadelphia but returns to Cambodia sporadically to run in elections, although his command of the language is imperfect.

In an interview at his new headquarters — a nearly empty townhouse whose ground floor had been taken over by a stray cat and her brood of kittens — he said he was unemployed and declined to discuss the sources of his party’s funding, but vehemently denied any association with the government.

He said he was not sure how many members his party had or what its specific policies were, other than attempting to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives. Asked to explain his reasons for running in the election, he began to cry, apparently overcome by emotion.

“He has pity for the Cambodian people,” his assistant murmured.

In another, similar townhouse, the Dharmacracy Party has set up shop. Its president, Pothitey Sawathey, who also recently returned to Cambodia from abroad, explained that she was inspired to enter politics after a series of miracles wrought by a spirit she called Preah In.

The spirit suggested the party’s name and laid out its founding principles. Drawing on his otherworldly advice, her political work mostly involves distributing fish-oil capsules and vitamins in rural areas, she said.

“I still believe that a spirit is in me, guiding me,” said Ms. Pothitey Sawathey, who wears a protective amulet around her neck and maintains a small altar at party headquarters where she offers incense to Preah In.

“She knows beforehand what is going to happen,” added her son and closest aide, Tito Kong. “She knew beforehand that the C.N.R.P. would be dissolved.”

Follow Julia Wallace on Twitter: @julia_wallace.

Sun Narin contributed reporting.

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