Arguably the most important outcome of the June 4 commune election was that Cambodia’s two main political parties both claimed success despite what actually happened.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won about 51 percent of the popular vote, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) took an estimated 46 percent. The CPP saw this as rebuffing the momentum that the CNRP had from the 2013 general election, when the opposition made substantial gains. The CNRP, meanwhile, saw the results as sufficient going into next year’s general election.
If the CNRP had won 60 percent at the popular vote, as party president Kem Sokha predicted beforehand, then things might now be a lot different. The ruling CPP would be on the backfoot for the next 13 months and, one might assume, would have responded to defeat with violence and greater levels of intimidation. Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of “civil war” if the CPP lost. He also threatened to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” if the CPP did “not win elections at all stages.”
Because both parties are pleased with the results, one can hope there’ll be a few months of relative stability and peace. The CNRP needs this. Kem Sokha, now the party’s president, spent most of last year hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters. He only left in December.
In February, Sam Rainsy was forced to step down as the party’s president. And during the subsequent weeks, the reshuffled leadership team – now with Kem Sokha as president, and three vice presidents – was dogged by the Interior Ministry over claims it was against the party’s protocols. (Other examples of government intimidation are too numerous to list here.)
Whichever way one looks at it, the CNRP today has an effective leadership team. What’s more, after a strong performance at the local election, the opposition party can now focus on what is desperately needed: a coherent, well-budgeted, and popular manifesto to go into the next general election with.
But life for the CNRP is seldom straightforward. And hope for calm was once again eroded when Sam Rainsy dared Prime Minister Hun Sen this week to allow him to return to Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile in November 2015 to avoid a number of legal charges, which have swelled in his absence. His exile was formalized in October when directive from the Council of Ministers banned his re-entry.
On Tuesday, the former opposition leader called on Hun Sen to be “brave enough” to let him return. “Please, Mr Hun Sen, be brave and do not prevent me from competing with you like boxers,” he told Radio Free Asia. In response to Sam Rainsy’s request, Hun Sen acquiesced and instructed the Council of Ministers to revoke the ban.
Sam Rainsy seems to fancy himself as a pugilist; he has used the boxing analogy previously. And with the swagger of a braggadocio boxer, he commented: “Hun Sen is scared of me, scared of my name, scared of my voice, scared of my shadow.”
The thing is: the prime minister probably isn’t that scared. In fact, he has worked the situation to his favor. What happens, for example, if Sam Rainsy now decides not to return to Cambodia, as appears to be the case? Well, Hun Sen can say that he offered it but Sam Rainsy is too much of a coward to accept. “Please come freely by water, overland, or whatever,” Hun Sen said on Thursday. “Look! Brave man, the door is open.”
Sam Rainsy has a knack for making promises to face imprisonment only to renege on them. He did so in November 2015, which I defended. But the bravado is getting a bit too much.
He told the Phnom Penh Post last month that “if the unconstitutional government ban forbidding all airlines companies from carrying me to Cambodia is lifted I will be in my native country in a matter of hours.” Yet, when it was lifted, he then told the newspaper that he would only return if other obstacles were also removed; one assumes he wants a royal pardon for the numerous charges against him.
Take another example. In the interview with Radio Free Asia, he said he was “willing to be jailed. I’m willing to die in order for the nation to survive.” But in an interview with Southeast Asia Globe days later, he said he has “to make sure that I am not the first of the ‘100 to 200 persons’ Hun Sen is publicly considering eliminating.”
But what happens if he does return? Without a pardon being granted, he’ll be arrested (but, despite his fears, he is unlikely to be killed). What would this achieve? Probably not very much. Currently, he is doing a good job in verbally attacking the government from the safety of Paris.
One could argue that his return and imprisonment would get the CNRP more votes next year, perhaps on some moral grounds. But he is hardly being moralistic about the decision. Among Nelson Mandela’s many noble acts was when, in 1985, he was granted conditional freedom to leave jail and refused. It was the moment the apartheid regime could see its own demise. But while some saw this simply as martyrdom, it was far more symbolic; Mandela understood that freedom defined by one’s enemy is no freedom at all.
Sam Rainsy, who has often evoked Mandela, doesn’t appear to understand this. His return, it seems, will be determined on whether he is pardoned for crimes that he must surely believe never were crimes in the first place (even though he accepted a royal pardon in 2013 to return before that year’s general election).
But if Sam Rainsy stands by the comments that led to his defamation charges, then why should he want them absolved; why be pardoned if you haven’t done anything wrong? And, if he thinks they are wrong, as some probably are, why not take responsibility?
Indeed, to be pardoned is not to be legally judged as not guilty; it is a political decision, handed out by the prime minister, which circumvents the law. Sam Rainsy’s freedom, then, will come as a gift from Hun Sen, and his freedom will be defined by the premier.
His call to be allowed to return home also reveals something naïve in Sam Rainsy’s thinking. On Thursday, he wrote in a statement to the media: “I am not interested in becoming a childish and inconsistent ‘hero’ whose sacrifice would be useless and practically amount to a definitive and untimely retreat in the middle of a decisive battle.”
Speaking to the Southeast Asia Globe, he also noted that Hun Sen’s offer for him to return might be a designed to “split me from CNRP President Kem Sokha.”
Of course, Hun Sen wants to divide the opposition party. Sam Rainsy’s return would no doubt call in question Kem Sokha’s legitimacy as leader, and undermine the apparent attempts to democratize the pro-democracy party. There were rumblings of discontent late last year over how power is concentrated among the party’s upper echelon.
But once again, if Sam Rainsy knows the government will use his return to sow distrust within the CNRP, why go on air and demand Hun Sen revoke the ban? And if he doesn’t want to be a “childish and inconsistent hero,” why sound like one, such as when he told RFA: “I’m willing to be jailed. I’m willing to die in order for the nation to survive. I will return and let them do whatever to me, but have to have the guarantee that the nation survives.” However one looks at it, he has been inconsistent and faux-heroic.
Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, told me last year that Sam Rainsy (before resigning as party president) had lost the ability to look at the bigger picture. “Today, he seems to be obsessed with Hun Sen and himself more than anything else. More than about the country,” he said.
Interestingly enough, for the same article I also spoke to Noan Sereiboth, a blogger and member of political discussion group Politikoffee, who said that many Cambodians who oppose the Hun Sen government still support Sam Rainsy because “there is no choice besides him.”
Today, however, there is an alternative. Kem Sokha and the new vice presidents have just led the CNRP to considerable success in this month’s commune election; far more impressive when one notes that the election was described an unfree and unfair by several monitors. And although Kem Sokha’s stature is not comparable to Sam Rainsy’s, he is far more capable of winning over rural voters, who will be the deciding factors in next year’s general election.
Of course, Cambodian politics is about personality. Australian political scientist Lee Morgenbesser described Cambodia as having an “authoritarian regime characterized by Hun Sen’s personal control of the political system” in a recent essay, which added that the prime minister runs a “personalist dictatorship.” But personality politics is not defeated by more personality politics.
It is time for the CNRP to step up as a party, not just a coalition of figures. And as I have noted before, the party’s task is not just winning an election but preparing to form a government. For effective governance, it must focus on policy and teamwork, not gratify the destinal ambitions of Sam Rainsy.