FEATURE: Cambodian polls likely a walkover for Hun Sen

PHNOM PENH (The Straits Times/ANN) - With Cambodia's sole opposition party in Parliament in disarray, voter revolt is unlikely, but organisations outside Cambodia worry about the credibility of the elections and political polarisation.

Cambodia will hold an election next July. There will hardly be any competition for Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving leaders.

The only opposition party in Parliament, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is on the brink of dissolution by the Supreme Court and its leader, Kem Sokha, has been detained for alleged treason. The party had been on track to make a serious dent in the dominance of Mr Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in next year's polls.

Now, more than 20 of the CNRP's 55 lawmakers have reportedly fled the country. They include its outspoken deputy president, Ms Mu Sochua, who has called for international sanctions to be imposed on the kingdom.

But there appears to be little appetite for anything beyond terse statements. Non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch has condemned the dissolution effort as a "naked grab for total power", while the European Union Delegation to Cambodia on Monday (Oct 9) called the situation very worrying, saying the enforced removal of CNRP would "undermine the credibility of the current election process".

A poll without the CNRP looks certain but an immediate revolt by voters is unlikely, analysts say, with the premier wooing key constituencies with pay rises and other sweeteners.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute visiting fellow Chheang Vannarith tells The Straits Times: "The legitimacy of the government after the election would become very low. It would lead to further political polarisation."

While this may be the first time an opposition party has been so systematically and legally picked apart, Cambodia's political history is littered with equally controversial episodes. The difference this time is the political opposition is now being silenced by the law - instead of violence.

In 1997, assailants lobbed grenades during a protest in Phnom Penh. Former finance minister Sam Rainsy, whose rising political profile was troubling the CPP, cheated death. But 16 other people died. Mr Hun Sen, 65, and his CPP colleagues have denied allegations that they were behind the attack.

Sixteen years later, Sam Rainsy gained enough ground through the CNRP to whittle down the CPP's parliamentary majority of 90 out of 123 seats, to 68.

CNRP looked set to do better in next year's election. In local-level elections in June, it eroded the ruling party's near total dominance by winning more than 40 per cent of the communes. It achieved this despite the fact that Sam Rainsy, who had been sentenced in absentia to jail for defamation, had quit the CNRP.

But the walls continued closing in. An amendment to political party law in July made it possible for parties to be dissolved if they associated with a convicted criminal, forcing the CNRP to purge Sam Rainsy's pictures from its signboards. Some 20 independent radio stations were shuttered, while the foreign staff of an American non-profit group were expelled.

Mr Hun Sen indicated on Wednesday (Oct 11) that the dissolution of the CNRP would not change the political landscape very much. "If one party is dissolved, five other parties will replace it," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Analysts disagree. "Without the CNRP, the election will be meaningless," Associate Professor Sophal Ear from Occidental College in Los Angeles told The Straits Times. "A coterie of assorted parties like Funcinpec, trying to make a comeback for the umpteenth time, and other less well-known ones still will not an opposition make."

Funcinpec, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has seen its political fortunes slide since it won the country's first democratic election in 1993. It failed to win any commune in June.

With his biggest political challenger hobbled, Mr Hun Sen is pushing through policies that will sweeten the ground for the polls. Civil servants' pay will go up next year, while thresholds for taxable incomes are expected to be raised. The minimum wage for garment and footwear workers will be hiked 11 per cent to US$170 (S$230) a month next year. These factory workers, who number more than 700,000, have played a major role in previous political protests.

With major voting blocs assuaged, street unrest is unlikely, analysts say.

An election without the CNRP might sink the ruling party's standing, but it will not loosen Mr Hun Sen's 32-year grip on power.

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