When Gallup conducted a recent global poll on the US presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain, 86 percent of Cambodians offered no preference in the race. Among the 73 countries surveyed, only India and Pakistan were more indifferent.
But as the returns came in Wednesday morning, local outbreaks of election fever could be detected all over Phnom Penh.
Near the Royal Palace, a group of Camintel employees wearing matching blue uniforms talked about the election as they prepared for Monday’s Independence Day festivities, where they will march carrying Cambodian flags.
“I want to see the results as soon as I go home,” said Camintel sales supervisor Som Samphea, 28, and her colleagues quickly agreed.
Lea Khela, 35, said she supported McCain. “He’s an American, not black like Obama,” she said. “I don’t want a black person to be president of America.”
When told that early returns looked good for Obama, she rolled her eyes and said she’d wait for the final tally.
“We have the same thing during elections in Cambodia,” she said. “We might get early results that say the SRP won some district, but that doesn’t mean Sam Rainsy’s going to win.”
At the University of Cambodia, a group of students poring over math books said they’d been following the election on Voice of America and Radio France. Eight out of 11 said they were rooting for Obama.
“I like Obama because he’s black,” said accounting student Kang Sokhim, 21. “He’ll be the first president with black skin.”
Finance student Son Sopheap, 20, said she admired the US political system.
“Cambodia has a lot of parties; in the US, only two,” she said. “When there are a lot of parties, there are a lot of conflicts.”
Law student Meth Chivirak, 20, said he watched election coverage on CNN. “I’m not sure if it’s a biased source or not,” he said.
He said he was concerned that Obama would give preferential treatment to black and low-income Americans.
“I believe that the leader should show favor to all, not just one group,” he said.
By 11 am, it was clear that Barack Obama would be the 44th president of the US. One group watched his victory with special interest: Cambodians who are also US citizens.
SRP lawmaker and US citizen Mu Sochua said she watched the election returns at both the US Embassy and the FCC, and listened to the BBC coverage in between.
“The US had to have a sign of hope, and this is it,” she said. “I’m sure that human rights and democracy will be high priorities in the Obama administration.”
Theary Seng, who is also a US citizen, voted for McCain, but said she was far from disappointed.
“Obama is just great,” she said. “At the end of the day, you couldn’t lose with either candidate. It’s extremely exciting, even for a McCain supporter.”
Former Minister of Rural Development Lu Laysreng said he watched the election returns at home on CNN.
He said he wasn’t surprised by Obama’s victory.
“I followed the polls,” he said, “and the Bush administration didn’t do too good.”
“I admire John McCain, but this is history,” he added. “It shows that America is a land of opportunity, and anyone who’s smart and talented can get something.”
A US citizen since 1983, Lu Laysreng didn’t vote, but said Obama was his choice.
“All my family voted for Obama, and I advised my former students in the states to vote for him,” he said.
Phay Siphan, a CPP secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, watched the returns at the US Embassy and said he had voted in the US election by absentee ballot.
He laughed and declined to answer when asked who got his vote.
“You understand,” he said. “I’m a government official.”
Over conversation in the gallery of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture on Street 178, three friends and artists shared excitement over the prospect of an Obama presidency.
“I track the US election because it’s related to world peace,” painter Venn Saveth said. “It could change the world.”
Sculptor On Tola said he was impressed by what he’d seen of Obama.
“I’m interested in him, his policies, his gestures,” he said. “Obama has a stable spirit.”
To painter Chhim Sothy, it’s natural that artists would be engaged in the election.
“All Cambodian artists are interested in change,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)
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