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Dr Milton Osborne
The CPP dominates commune elections as the impasse preventing progress on the functioning of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal appears to have been resolved.
In terms of Cambodian politics, Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has further entrenched its control as the result of sweeping successes in the Commune Council elections held on 1 April. These elections, which very loosely can be equated with municipal elections elsewhere in the world, saw the CPP win control of 1,591 of the country's 1,621 communes, representing 98.2% of the total contested. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) managed to win control of 28 communes, or 1.7% of the total. On the basis of the information currently available it is possible that control of the remaining two communes has been shared between the Norodom Ranariddh Party and the Hang Dara Party.
Despite failing to win control of more than 28 communes, Sam Rainsy has claimed that the election showed that his party is now poised to play an important role as the country's undisputed electoral opposition, both in the national parliament and in the commune councils. He makes this claim on the basis that the SRP garnered 25.5% of the popular vote as opposed to the 61.1% achieved by the CPP. While in purely statistical terms there is some support for Sam Rainsy's claims, the brutal reality of Cambodian politics throws doubt on his proposition. Since communes represent the link between national government and the villages, the CPP's victories mean it will be in a position to dominate politics at every level of government throughout the country. And while there have been claims of intimidation and electoral malpractice levelled against the CPP, the result reflects the continuing and successful efforts made by Hun Sen's party to maintain an active and effective presence in both urban and rural regions, in considerable contrast to the other parties.
The failure of the minor parties contesting the elections, Norodom Ranariddh Party and the Hang Dara Party, to achieve a worthwhile result further underlines the decline of Prince Ranariddh's role in national politics since his expulsion from leadership of FUNCINPEC (United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia) in October 2006. Ranariddh remains absent from Cambodia, where earlier this year he was convicted in absentia for a breach of trust in selling a FUNCINPEC property, and where he also is due to stand trial for violation of the adultery law that was passed in August 2006. Additionally, Ranariddh's troubles and his fading electoral clout reflect the declining importance of the monarchy in particular and the royal family more generally in the conduct of Cambodian politics. In a major development, and after months of uncertainty and wrangling, the impasse preventing the operation of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC) from functioning appears to have been resolved. The impasse stemmed from the refusal of the Cambodian Bar Association to agree to foreign lawyers appearing before the tribunal unless they paid fees for the privilege of doing so. The Bar Association has now withdrawn this demand, which was opposed by some international judges since it could have led to a situation in which defendants before the tribunal might appear without legal representation.
Since much of the manoeuvring to try and end the impasse has taken place behind closed doors, it is difficult to know exactly what has led to a change of position on the part of the Cambodian Bar Association. At last report, the next meeting of all judges, both Cambodian and international, is due to take place during May, at which point final agreement on the tribunal's procedures is supposed to be reached. Since progress towards having the tribunal functioning has widely been described as 'glacial', the change of heart on the part of the Bar Association may have prevented the ECCC's being characterised by the harsher term as 'farcical'. Nevertheless, there remains the very real possibility that the few remaining senior Khmer Rouge figures still alive will die before any tribunal cases are heard.
Against this background of unchallenged CPP political control, with its accompanying problems of impunity and corruption, and the very slow progress towards bringing cases before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Cambodia's economic performance at the macro-economic level continues to be positive. Growth for 2006 is calculated to have been of the order of 9%. With the prospect of oil production from the discoveries that have now been made in the Gulf of Thailand coming on stream in the next two years, continuing growth seems almost certainly assured. Whether the government will be able to avoid the problems that have all too often been associated with oil wealth is yet to be seen. And growth of the kind just recorded does not, of course, alter the fact that Cambodia remains a desperately poor country in human terms, with a deep divide between a small prosperous elite and the overwhelming majority of the population who are very poor.
WATCHPOINT: The extent to which a final resolution of the problems associated with the ECCC has been achieved will provide an index of the Cambodian government's readiness to try once and for all to bring an end to a situation in which clearly guilty former senior Khmer Rouge figures are living in impunity.
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