Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has announced he will return to Phnom Penh this week, buoying his party just days before the country’s general election. Will his pardon bring about change?
The news on July 12th that Sam Rainsy (title photo) had received a royal pardon for an 11-year sentence handed down in 2010 came as a relief to supporters of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only credible challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
It was welcomed too by donors and by the United Nations’ human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, whose 2012 report emphasized “the importance of a level playing field for all political parties to compete on an equal footing”, and who had called for a deal that would allow Rainsy to return and take part.
'A step towards reconciliation'
"Today I applaud the [government] for having taken this important step towards reconciliation, which is in the interests of stronger and deeper democratization of Cambodia," Subedi said, adding that he hoped the government would act "to allow Sam Rainsy to play a full part in the national politics of Cambodia".
On July 19th, tens of thousands of supporters of the CNRP – which is an amalgam of the two leading opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party – are expected to greet Rainsy upon his return. He will spend the next week touring the country drumming up support for the CNRP ahead of the July 28th ballot.
Speaking from his home in Paris, Rainsy welcomed his pardon, saying it was in part a consequence of lobbying by foreign ministers "representing many countries that were the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia" – the deal that brought together the warring factions of the long-running civil war and that eventually culminated in peace.
"I think all of them have contributed to this happy end," Rainsy told DW by phone, adding that he was happy with the pardon “not only for myself, but mainly for Cambodia."
"This is a sign, an indication that we are moving in the right direction: the direction of national reconciliation, of national unity without which Cambodia cannot achieve democracy and cannot achieve true development," he added.
Barred from the election
For its part, the government insisted that donors had not influenced the decision to pardon the opposition leader, who went into self-imposed exile in 2009. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that the pardon had been engineered by Prime Minister Hun Sen with the desire "to create unity and reconciliation". Rainsy’s presence, Hor Namhong added, would mean a free and fair election – which, not incidentally, is a key demand of some donors.
As the election drew closer, Rainsy’s absence had been condemned by some donors – most significantly the United States. A Congressional hearing last week saw some US lawmakers threaten to pull the plug on aid to Cambodia should the ballot not be seen as free and fair.
Political analyst Chea Vannath says that while Rainsy’s return is a step in the right direction, it is a stretch to conclude that this somehow constitutes all the elements of a free and fair election. As she points out, Rainsy is currently barred from running for a seat and is not allowed to vote. "He should be able to participate in the election," she told DW. "His presence is not enough."
History of a conviction
Cambodia’s pliant courts had jailed Rainsy in absentia for his actions over the disputed eastern border with Vietnam, long a sensitive topic for Hun Sen and the CPP, who drove out the Khmer Rouge in 1979 with Hanoi’s help. Among the crimes: Rainsy uprooted a temporary border post claiming that it encroached on the land of Cambodian farmers; and during a press conference he produced a map whose borders the government said were wrong.
The pursuit of Rainsy – who it should be said has a long history of verbally bashing ethnic Vietnamese for political ends – was seen by many as a convenient way for the prime minister to rid himself of the country’s most effective opposition politician. Rainsy’s supporters, among others, have long denounced the episode as politically motivated.
That said, the controversies surrounding this election neither begin nor end with Rainsy’s participation. In recent months it has become clear that the electoral roll is a mess: The National Democratic Institute – a US non-profit – audited the roll and found around 10 percent of the names on the list are so-called "ghost" voters.
In addition, a similar proportion of voters who believed they had registered found that their names were not on the roll. The upshot is that around one million eligible voters will likely be unable to vote on Election Day, while a million or so "ghosts" will be able to cast a ballot. In a nation with around 9.5 million voters, those are sizeable proportions.
There are other issues too: The ruling CPP enjoys complete control over nearly all broadcast media, which means ordinary people – around two-thirds of whom live in rural areas – depend for their information on television and radio stations controlled by or loyal to the ruling party. This sanitized news diet consists largely of tedious ribbon-cutting ceremonies, long speeches by CPP members, and general adulation about how well the party is doing in developing the country.
"Election problems remain – especially the composition and the leadership of the electoral commission," Rainsy said. "The electoral commission is not neutral; the electoral commission is a political tool for the ruling party to win any election even before voting day." Those problems, the pardoned leader said, would need to be resolved too "in order to ensure free and fair elections."
Despite those challenges, the CNRP is in ebullient mood as news of Rainsy’s return sinks in. Veteran opposition legislator Son Chhay believes it "will bring hope to the people and this hope will be translated into a win for the opposition".
"It’s clear that the majority of the population wants change and will vote for the opposition to get in government," he told DW. "So it’s a very exciting time – although as everybody sees, the election process is under the control of the government."
The CNRP is confident that Rainsy’s presence will add to their tally of votes, and that as a consequence they will take more than the 29 seats they managed in 2008.
That optimism, however, is not widely shared outside the CNRP. There are a number of reasons for that, not least because – away from the advantages of being the incumbent and the possibility of dirty tricks – surveys show that Hun Sen and the ruling party are genuinely popular in rural areas, which is where most voters live.
And as analyst Chea Vannath points out, there are solid reasons for that popularity: Cambodia has been at peace for 15 years – "and the older generation of voters want to play it safe" – the kingdom has benefited from near double-digit growth over the past decade, and infrastructure has improved markedly, in particular the roads.
"The way the government has developed the country has been at the people’s expense, of course, but at the same time the majority still benefits from the ruling party’s performance," she says. "Also, Cambodian society is still old-fashioned [and its] relationships are still based on the patronage system."
In summary, says Chea Vannath, and despite Rainsy’s return, the overwhelming likelihood is that on July 28th Cambodians will vote to maintain the status quo.