'Democracy at stake' in Cambodian election, says opposition MP

Hun Sen expected to steamroll his way to victory in today's election but the opposition may make some headway despite fears of voting fraud

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 7:59am

She is brave, eloquent and defiant in a country where government critics have been detained, imprisoned and sometimes killed for speaking out. Now Mu Sochua, Cambodia's leading woman opposition MP, has once again been calling for change as she campaigned ahead of today's national elections.

Her calls have fallen on receptive ears: the opposition party was given a boost by the recent return from exile of its French-educated firebrand leader, Sam Rainsy.

No one expects the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to win outright: Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) holds 90 of the 123 National Assembly seats and won the past two elections by landslides despite claims of fraud and irregularities. But it may make its greatest strides yet.

Their weapon, says Mu Sochua, is Cambodia's youth: a growing media-savvy population who depend on each other and the internet to share news and information that is recognisably absent from state-run TV and radio. Supporters now openly wear CNRP stickers and T-shirts, and use Facebook to discuss politics and hold meetings with one another.

But such openness has also had its drawbacks.

"There is a noticeable element of political discrimination against opposition supporters, who are targeted by village chiefs," Mu Sochua said.

Sam Rainsy said his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had uncovered irregularities such as tens of thousands of duplicated voter names that would allow some people to cast ballots twice. Local and international rights groups have also voiced concerns about reports of irregularities, while the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, urged the kingdom to probe complaints.

But the ruling party CPP dismissed the allegations.

"They must point out those irregularities, not just talk. If they just talk, it is merely an excuse for the CNRP's coming election loss," CPP and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.

Sam Rainsy is barred from running since the authorities said it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.

Hun Sen has spent the past few months cautioning that a vote against the CPP could lead to war, or even the return of the Khmer Rouge.

Analysts have warned that racial rhetoric - particularly anti-Vietnamese statements made by the opposition - could also cause trouble if not checked.

Hun Sen's government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and clamping down on dissent. Last month all 28 opposition MPs were stripped of their status by a committee made up of ruling party members. It accused them of violating parliamentary rules by joining forces to form a new party.

Hun Sen isn't without his vulnerabilities, however, and they are more in focus this time than in the last election in 2008, when a border dispute with Thailand cloaked him in patriotism. Corruption and land-grabbing by the rich and well-connected are tinderbox issues that pit Hun Sen's populist political instincts against his loyalty to cronies.

Campaigners, including US politicians, have called for America to cut its US$73 million in annual aid if Hun Sen wins yet another term, a move the opposition supports.

"This is not about the mercy of aid, this is about the quality of aid, because what is at stake is a whole nation, the lives of so many millions of people," says Mu Sochua. "If you continue to back a leader who does not put human rights and democracy on his agenda, at the end of the day, what is at stake? Democracy is at stake."

The Guardian, Agence France-Presse, Reuters