Chemical Adds Flavor to Campaign Season

Three letters are adding flavor to the 1998 elections. No, they’re not CPP, KNP or the KSP. They’re MSG, or monosodium glutamate, the chemical flavor enhancer that’s putting some politicians in hot soup. 

The CPP has taken a twist on the old US campaign slogan that promised “a chicken in every pot.” Cambodian politicians aren’t giving away chickens; they’re giving away packets of the white crystalline granules that make a pot with one chicken taste like one with four.

Voters are given a packet of the popular seasoning and asked to vote for the CPP.

A 69-year-old woman from Kandal pro­vince, who preferred not to be named, said her commune chief gave her a package of MSG with a picture of the Buddha.

“He said, ‘You must vote for the Bud­dha’s Party [the CPP], and if you don’t, you will melt away just like MSG in the soup,’ ” she said.

The ploy left a bad taste in her mouth. “At first I was happy to get the gift,” she said, “but then after that I was angry.”

Politicians have started to trade barbs over the practice.

Deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh poked fun at the CPP practice this weekend by saying the strategy may backfire.

“Some people may get sick from MSG, their hands will be shaking and they may vote for us by accident,” he told a crowd in Kompong Speu province, after noting that his Funcinpec party and the CPP were to be listed next to each other on the ballot.

And the flavor enhancer may have had a part in bringing down the Khmer Rouge. Among the many complaints defectors from Anlong Veng had with the hard-line leadership was they weren’t permitted to use MSG. Commerce was banned there.

“It’s delicious,” Cha Sarin, a 30-year-old farmer, said of the MSG-laden soup he was eating at a stall in Phnom Penh’s Phsar Thmei. The farmer from Kompong Cham province said a CPP worker gave him a packet of the flavor enhancer about two weeks ago. But so far the gift has not swayed him.

“I haven’t decided who to vote for yet….I think I’ll vote for someone who is good for the country and the future,” he said.

Everyone interviewed at the market, both food sellers and shoppers, said they used MSG. Thai-made MSG in 500 gram packets cost 3,500 riel, vendor Tim Phalla said. She moves 10 to 20 packages a day.

“It’s good for every kind of soup, and just about everybody likes it,” she said.

Um Sathem, a 32-year-old homemaker, said she uses MSG in almost all her cooking to give her food “a good taste.”

“We have to choose a good leader,” she said. “I don’t think I would vote for someone just because they gave me a gift.”

(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)

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