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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Results of Cambodia’s 5th parliamentary elections today showed stunning political gains for Sam Rainsy’s opposition coalition in the capital of Phnom Penh itself and in various provinces. It constitutes unmistakable wake-up call for strongman Hun Sen.



Prime Minister Hun Sen

Phnom Penh, Cambodia---When I was invited by former Speaker Jose de Venecia, Founding President of the Centrist Asia-Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) and Founding Chair of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), to join the prestigious international team of over 60 delegates from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America that he assembled to monitor Cambodia’s 5th  parliamentary elections, I eagerly signed up.

I hadn’t been back in Phnom Penh since my husband ended his nearly four-year stint as Philippine ambassador here in November 1998. President Fidel Ramos wanted an ex-military man to reopen the embassy here after it was closed down by Ambassador Rogelio de la Rosa in the mid-70s, owing to the turmoil and misery caused in this country by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

Thus, it was good to be back in the Cambodian capital and I marveled at the visible progress all around---new imposing government and private buildings and homes, landscaped streets and parks, numerous new business enterprises, etc.

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But it was the parliamentary elections today that brought me here, the 5thsince the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, and like the other delegates I was fully aware that today’s political exercise for the Cambodian people is bound to be historic and epochal for a number of reasons. 

For one, this is the first time since the mid-90s that the 20-year rule of Cambodia’s strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is being challenged very seriously---this time by an ascetic-looking bespectacled intellectual leader recently returned from exile, former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, whose political coalition swept Phnom Penh in today’s elections. Reports indicate that he’s also raking in victories in various provinces, including in Hun Sen’s birthplace in Kompong Cham.

What’s interesting is that Rainsy is not even a candidate in today’s elections as he was not allowed to run by two government institutions; yet he’s very much the protagonist against Hun Sen.

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To understand the significance of today’s elections, it should be noted that in the mid-1990s, the keen political rivalry between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh was sought to be settled by various mediators through a most unique political experiment---a power-sharing where the two rivals were declared “co-Prime Ministers.” But in July 1997 Hun Sen pulled a coup with the help of the Army and dethroned Ranariddh, grabbing power for himself.

The debonair Prince, son of the fabled King Norodom Sihanouk, went on exile for a while, and then later staged a comeback to head Parliament; but subsequent developments in the arena of the heart eclipsed Ranariddh from public view totally and Hun Sen has since dominated the political stage here, bringing stability and development to this once-seething and turbulent country.

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Former Finance Secretary Sam Rainsy

Today’s elections, however, have aroused enormous frenzied excitement among Cambodians, but alas, they also harbor an enormous potential for destabilizing political violence in their aftermath--- the most serious possible threat to Cambodia’s stability in nearly two decades.

The challenger in today’s elections is the tall, lean former Finance Secretary, Sam Rainsy, who had returned just a week ago from four-year self-exile in France, after he escaped serving a harsh 11-year imprisonment sentence that was popularly regarded as politically motivated. He was charged with inciting followers to pull out border markers along the Vietnamese border that allegedly were eating into Cambodian territory---thus whipping up centuries-old border animosities between the two neighbors.

Rainsy was pardoned and allowed to return by reigning King Sihamoni, son and successor of the late legendary King Sihanouk who died late last year at age 90. But when Rainsy asked to be returned to his old National Assembly seat and secure his voting right as a citizen, so he could run in today’s national elections, ruling Assembly officials and the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, its highest judicial body, thumbed down both requests.

The flimsy excuse for rejecting Rainsy’s petition to run in today’s elections was that he failed to beat the deadline for filing of his candidacy, but it’s far more complicated than that.

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While in exile his Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) had remained vacant, and he then merged it with the small Human Rights Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that had held 29 seats in Parliament. But apparently the National Assembly’s permanent committee, controlled by Hun Sen’s allies from his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was determined to stop Rainsy’s political come-back. It stripped all CNRP representatives of their parliamentary seats earlier this year, in order to force Rainsy to resign as CNRP president and rejoin and revive his now defunct SRP. Time had run out.   

All these setbacks for Rainsy, however, made him very much the underdog even if he wasn’t running any longer, and when he returned to Cambodia a week ago, tens of thousands of people choked the streets of Phnom Penh to catch a glimpse of him---folk hero and political martyr personified.

In the few days since his arrival he has been campaigning up and down the country, reaping the same frenzied reception and firing up the hitherto listless campaign of the opposition against the long-entrenched administration. Rainsy has accused the regime's top leaders of corruption that has impoverished the people, land-grabbing, ostentatious display of wealth and curtailment of freedoms, especially that of the opposition press.

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Writer Denise Hruby put today’s elections in perspective in the “Cambodia Daily” thus: the nation is divided “between those who think the past 20 years have brought financial and political stability, infrastructure and new business opportunities---in short, overall development and prosperity.. .” and those who, “despite the progress, see that the past two decades have brought rampant corruption, abuse of human rights, land grabbing and concentration of power and wealth in the political families of Mr. Hun Sen‘s ruling CPP.”

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The international monitors led by former Speaker Joe de Venecia quickly noted the difference between the studied exhilaration of CPP’s blue-and-white uniformed recruits among government workers and state college students lining the streets of Phnom Penh and snaking around in their decorated trucks and motorcycles, vs. the frenetic and spontaneous exuberance of Rainsy’s followers among the young people and lower-income workers such as the market vendors and bar and restaurant waiters. 

At polling places international observers from ICAPP and CAPDI visited in the capital, Rainsy’s followers were delirious with joy when results showing his coalition’s generous victories were announced. In one school compound people with misty eyes clapped heartily for us observers. One elderly woman tried to grab team leader Joe de Venecia’s hands after the counting was over---as if to say, we know you helped keep the elections free and fair here, thank you so much.

As poll results are being awaited from various provinces, it’s still not known just how honest and violence-free the elections went outside the capital.  The observers in Phnom Penh heard many complaints about names missing from voters’ lists, double-use of names, not so indelible ink, etc. This evening many army trucks bearing fatigue-clad troops surrounded the Prime Minister's imposing residence, perhaps to forestall any possible trouble from election malcontents.

The CPP with its 20-year reign is expected to still retain its lead in Parliament. But definitely today’s elections that showed the Rainsy coalition’s amazing strength (doubling its Assembly seats from the previous 29) despite the so little time he was able to campaign for it indicates an unmistakable wake-up call for reforms for Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen. 

What lies ahead for this once-turbulent nation? No one can tell at this point. 


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