What We Don’t Know About the Cambodian Opposition’s Financial Plans

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What We Don’t Know About the Cambodian Opposition’s Financial Plans

Several important questions remain unanswered.

What We Don’t Know About the Cambodian Opposition’s Financial Plans
Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

“Our candidates are so poor and they badly need support from our compatriots living overseas.” So reads an email recently sent by Long Botta, an MP for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to the party’s team in Washington. Long Botta was among a number of opposition politicians who traveled to the United States this month to canvass the Cambodian diaspora for some cash. Joining them was Kem Sokha, who took over as party president following Sam Rainsy’s resignation in January. Last month, he spent two weeks fundraising in Australia and New Zealand.

In a sense, there is nothing strange about the CNRP’s leadership being absent from Cambodia while the party continues to face repeated attacks by the government. The party relies on largess from the Cambodia diaspora, which is frequently rattled out by the visit of a senior CNRP official. At the 2013 general election, an estimated 60 percent of the party’s funds came from supporters living abroad. So, too, will the funds for June’s commune election and next year’s general election.

On April 6, the Phnom Penh Post quoted CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann saying that the opposition party intends to raise $1 million from across the world before June’s election. Currently, $20,000 has been raised, he said, though one assumes that the party has more than that in its coffers ($200,000 was the aim for Kem Sokha’s trip to the United States). Mu Sochua, one of the party’s new vice-presidents, told me that the CNRP has budgeted around $1.04 million for the upcoming commune elections. So, let us assume these figures are correct and the CNRP has roughly $1 million to campaign the commune elections. This raises two questions.

First, why would the CNRP spend less in 2017 than its two composite parties spent at the 2012 commune elections? The Human Rights Party (HRP) and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), which merged in 2012 to form the CNRP, spent $996,766 and $560,904, respectively,  according to the forms submitted to COMFREL, an electoral watchdog. This totals $1,557,670, a third more than what the CNRP plans to spend this year.

Second, if the CNRP is budgeting just $1 million for June’s election, what about the $1,000 each commune team was instructed to raise to finance their own campaigns, as Yim Sovann told the Cambodia Daily in January? If each of the 1,633 communes has to raise a minimum of $1,000 for the campaigns of their chiefs and councilors, doesn’t this mean grassroots fundraising will contribute at least $1.63 million towards the campaign? Where, then, does the $1 million that the CNRP is trying to raise from abroad fit into this picture? Will the national funds buttress the local funds, for example?

Questions about the CNRP’s funding invariably raises questions of transparency, even though the party is leagues ahead of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) is this respect. It has been suggested by analysts that most donations to the CNRP go to individual politicians, not the party.  When I asked Mu Sochua about this, she said it was “not true at all.” However, she then said, “[Donations] may come through us [meaning politicians] but each donor determines and specifies how they want [their dollars to be] spent. Usually they sponsor a commune, province, [or] the party itself.”

I put the same question to Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think-tank. He said:

That hasn’t changed and they [are] still heavily relying on donations to individual politicians and not the party. That needs to change if they want to strengthen the party. Given that financing hasn’t changed, it’s difficult to see how the party will be strengthened and how they move away from personality politics.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, told me: “In the Sam Rainsy Party there was a system of party collection of donations, but that hasn’t always been followed under CNRP.”

While the issue of what a party does with its funds does reveal something about how it functions, a lack of funds is unlikely to be what loses the election for the CNRP (the United States might have a “money primary,” but the CPP easily wins Cambodia’s financial contest each time). The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt reported in February that sources close to the CPP said surveys had been carried out that show a possible 30 percent swing against the ruling CPP in June’s commune election (it was unclear if this meant in terms of popular vote or commune seats, but either would be a considerable threat to the CPP.)

At the last commune election, the SRP secured 20.6 percent of the popular vote, while the HRP got 9.6 percent. So, hypothetically, if the same voters who backed the SRP and HRP five years ago back the CNRP in June, and the supposed 30 percent swing away from the CPP also takes place, then the opposition party may well win 60 percent of the popular vote.

Yoeurng Sotheara, the law and monitoring officer at COMFREL, claims to have seen an opinion poll carried out by an unnamed international NGO which, surveying residents in more than 1,000 communes, said the CNRP would win at least 60 percent of the commune council seats.

One ought to be wary of opinion polls nowadays, though the government’s desire to ban them, as announced on April, might reveal something about how strongly it takes their findings. And if the aforementioned polls are true, then the CNRP may well win the popular vote in June, putting it in a excellent position going into next year’s general election. The possibility of a CNRP government – however unlikely it is that the CPP would hand over power voluntarily – takes the question from campaign finances to the party’s financial policy.

A frequent criticism made by the CNRP is that the government spends too much on the military. After opposition lawmakers boycotted a National Assembly vote on the 2017 budget in November, Son Chhay, an MP, lambasted the $825 million budgeted for the armed forces, a 20 percent rise from the previous year. He also said that not enough was being spent on public services: education, for example, which was only earmarked $685 million, despite a 35 percent rise.

But does the CNRP seriously believe that, if it were to win power next year, it could drastically cut the military spending from the budget? The armed forces are already pro-CPP and numerous generals have threatened to take action if the CNRP wins a general election. A CNRP government, however way one looks at it, would need to placate the military, and the easiest way is with money. Indeed, this might even mean giving it more than the CPP currently does.

One of the few clearly defined financial policies pledged by the CNRP is to boost commune-level funding: $500,000 annually would go to each of Cambodia’s 1,633 communes, meaning almost $816 million per year, or about a fifth of the current national budget. Presently, communes receive between $10,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on their size.

Such expensive decentralization, while good on paper, comes up against cold hard figures. The necessary $816 million could come from the money set aside for the military, but, as just seen, the CNRP is unlikely to do that. The opposition, however, believes the funds could be raised from greater taxation, mainly applied to the very wealthy. This could work, but a CNRP government will face the same difficulties the current one is experiencing as it tries to reform Cambodia’s often archaic taxation system.

But say the CPP wins in June’s commune election but the CNRP takes next year’s general election. What then? Would a CNRP government be so willing to hand over a fifth of the state budget to CPP-controlled communes? One doubts it. In fact, it would be self-destructive to do so; if the CNRP wants to wants to foment genuine change, this will have to come through “top-down” reform, and enriched CPP-controlled communes could resist such reforms from central government.

At this juncture, the reader might have grown slightly weary of this Socratic method of assessing the CNRP’s finances and financial policy. But, to be frank, what the CNRP offers in terms of its policy platform can only be assessed with queries. Most criticism thrown at the CNRP comes down to the simple fact that the party prefers campaign promises – which are often just generalized ambitions – to well thought-out policies. To this comment, the party’s acolytes may well respond that it ought not be judged too harshly on its financial plans. A truism says that parties in opposition, with no experience of ruling, promise more than they can afford, or promise only generalities, not specific plans. But, as with most truisms, they don’t get you very far. Indeed, worse than misguided plans are no plans at all.

We do not know, for example, what the CNRP’s policy is on Chinese investment, which has propped up the economy for a number of years with sizable aid packages and generous loans. The party’s anti-Vietnamese chauvinism has arguably played into its pro-Beijing stance on disputes with Hanoi over the South China Sea, as Sam Rainsy said in 2014. Yet, in October 2016, the party’s former president lambasted Chinese aid to Cambodia for enabling human rights abuses. “There are [Chinese-funded] mines and deforestation, and the people are victims of those projects; they are victims of land grabbing and abuse, and China doesn’t give any consideration to human rights,” he told Radio Free Asia. “That’s why the Cambodian government likes to get loans from China, it is easy money.”

Easy money aside (which government prefers difficult fundraising, anyway?) if the CNRP was to get into power, would it put a stop to Chinese investment? This would be a difficult feat to achieve. Hun Sen’s estimate that Cambodia needs between $500 million and $700 million each year for infrastructure development isn’t far off the mark. Moreover, the time of the next general election, in 2018, would only be halfway through Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, and, as shown last month, his administration is desperate to cut foreign aid to the developing world, including Cambodia. If the CNRP believes that Cambodia can reject Beijing’s purse, and turn to the West for financing, it ought to remember that we are no longer in the 1990s.

There are numerous other questions that the CNRP ought to answer. Would it continue with the government’s current rate of borrowing? This has been criticized by the party in the past. “We see that spending is almost $5 billion, but the spending relies on borrowing almost $1 billion, so the budget is still not balanced,” Son Chhay told local media last year. And, would the CNRP continue capping the interest rates that microfinance institutions can charge, a government policy implemented in March to much criticism? How would it fund its promise to increases wages of garment workers and civil-servants? Would it focus more spending on “soft infrastructure” — schools, hospitals and so forth — rather than the current government’s preference for “hard infrastructure”? And, the main one: how would it keep its promise to rid the country of corruption without causing a flight of capital?

In preparation for next month’s commune election, the CNRP has come out with one definitive, and praiseworthy, financial plan, though how it will fund the mass decentralization needs to be addressed. Nonetheless, it is something tangible and, by all accounts, popular with the electorate. One can only hope, then, that once the commune elections are over in June, with a general election only 13 months away, the CNRP can concentrate on developing a coherent and developed financial plan to contest what could be the most important election in decades.