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Experts: Defections Could Mean 'Weaker' Democracy

Recent defections from the Sam Rainsy Party and others to the ruling party could hurt the opposition in upcoming elections, observers say, and that could hurt Cambodia’s democratic checks and balances.

The Sam Rainsy Party has said that several defections in recent weeks cleared the way for younger activists, but the switches have also strengthened the ruling party’s chances in July’s elections, several analysts said in recent interviews.

At least four opposition parliamentarians have left the Sam Rainsy Party after nearly a decade of party loyalty. Meanwhile at least 10 Funcinpec lawmakers have changed their party stripes, including two secretaries of state and an undersecretary.

The movement of lawmakers into one powerful party is a concern for the balance of Cambodia’s democratic system, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

“We are very worried that one powerful political party has so much power, and can control the parliament, government, authorities and all state management,” Koul Panha said. “If the opposition party is getting weaker, it could make democracy in Cambodia weaker.”

But both the SRP and Funcinpec have seen internal struggles in recent months, with some party members disillusioned with leadership.

Sok Peng, a former opposition lawmaker from Kampong Thom who moved to the CPP on Saturday, said he now admired the ruling party.

“I had been a steering committee member [for the SRP] since 1995, but now I cannot find any leader to lead the party forward,” he said. “The Sam Rainsy Party now doesn’t have a good leader to lead the country, and the internal process is not good.”

The CPP, meanwhile, was developing the country, he said.

Other lawmakers who have changed to the ruling party include Ahmad Yahya, a Muslim leader from Kampong Cham, and Ngor Sovann, from Kandal.

Some lawmakers have sought to move out of their parliamentary seats and into administrative provincial positions.

Others, like Chit Sarith, a former head of the land dispute authority for the SRP, have simply resigned.

Eng Chai Eang, SRP secretary-general, who has faced criticism from some defectors, told VOA Khmer the party is not facing an internal crisis.

“This is not related to the Sam Rainsy leadership,” he said. “However, a couple opposition party members who are looking for good positions or benefits in the government and defected to the CPP won’t make the Sam Rainsy Party have a crisis.”

Funcipec leaders declined to comment on the shifting allegiances, saying only that Cambodia’s political landscape is rapidly changing.

The CPP is demonstrating increased power to pull members into its fold, said Thun Saray, director of the rights group Adhoc and a longtime Cambodia political observer.

“Some opposition parties thought that it wouldn’t affect their parties so much,” he said. “But the defections of some Funcinpec members into the CPP could.”

People who once supported Funcinpec could worry over the future of the party, he said.

The Sam Rainsy Party increased from 15 parliamentary seats in 1998 to 24 seats in 2003, while Funcinpec fell from 43 seats to 26 in the same period. The CPP has 73 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said party affiliation was a personal choice.

“When we have more defectors to our party, then we have less people who always curse us,” he added. “We welcome anyone who participates with us.”

Observers say the CPP has enjoyed popularity of about 60 percent of the population, while Funcinpec’s popularity in the commune elections halved, thanks to a fracturing of members over the sacking of the party’s former president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Recent defections and the perception of internal conflict could especially hurt the non-ruling parties, observers say, especially if the smaller parties do not align with each other as the election approaches.