FIRST RUNNER-UP

With the election on Sunday, most indicators point to another solid victory by the ruling CPP at the ballot box.

Already in possession of 73 National Assembly seats—enough to form a government on its own—the CPP also has a near monopoly on the media, particularly television. Many observers and opposition parties also frequently complain of intimidation by grassroots officials, as well as bias among election officials in favor of the CPP—claims the ruling party and the National Election Committee have rigorously denied. Additionally, the ruling party simply has more money, allowing them to far outspend their competitors on the campaign trail.

But regardless of those factors, the Cambodian People’s Party also has a very strong and disciplined party structure, something even opposition politicians readily acknowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, many Cambodians seem to be of the opinion that their country is improving under the CPP-led government. According to an International Republican Institute poll from earlier this year, 77 percent of the public believes Cambodia is headed in the right direction. Opposition parties are, unsurprisingly, quick to dismiss that statistic as too broad a generalization and not reflective of the true sentiments of the voting public.

Lawmaker Nguon Nhel, who chairs the CPP’s campaign committee, said his party has not carried out any formal surveys to determine the number of seats it would win, but he estimated that it would be between 81 and 83.

A number of observers agree that the ruling party will retain its place at the top.

“It is difficult to see how the CPP could lose some seats,” said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho and a board member for the election monitoring NGO Nicfec.

“I think the CPP because they have the most money, and control of the media, and the chiefs of the villages, more than 90 percent are pro-CPP, as are the chiefs of the communes. These people have a lot of influence on the voters,” she added.

Independent political observer Chea Vannath also agreed that the ruling party was likely to retain its control, barring a “tsunami or a disaster where all the blame goes onto the CPP.”

“The number two, we expect Sam Rainsy because of their long lasting struggle and he is one of the most legitimate challenges for the ruling party,” Chea Vannath said. “So they still get most of the support, more than any other party,” except the CPP.

Since 1998, the SRP has held the third most seats in the Assembly, following the CPP and Funcinpec, but it does appear to be a certainty that the opposition party will move into the number two slot this year.

Funcinpec has been steadily losing seats in each successive election from being the winner in 1993 with 58 seats, to 43 seats in 1998 and just 26 in 2003. The party also took a massive hit in the 2007 commune election, losing 85 percent of its commune councilor seats in one fell swoop.

Funcinpec is now in the unenviable position of perhaps losing all of its Assembly seats. According to IRI, if the tallies in Sunday’s poll ended up being identical to last year’s commune vote, Funcinpec would win only a single seat.

The SRP and CPP, by contrast, have both been on an upward trajectory since 1998, and the SRP made solid gains in the commune election.

Funcinpec’s shaky standing means that its 26 seats are the most vulnerable to being snatched up by other parties. With the CPP looking like it will comfortably win at least the majority of seats, the biggest questions of this campaign are how many of those seats will the political opposition—particularly the SRP—collect, and how many seats does the SRP need to win to remain the opposition party of choice down the line.

Observers said it was uncertain how many places the opposition would take, but Kek Galabru said that the inability of the SRP, Norodom Ranariddh Party and Human Rights Party to come together ahead of the election is a blow to their chances.

“I know there are issues they had to discuss, but they should have been thinking about the big picture,” she said.

“Now voters have three parties to choose from with essentially the same platform,” she added. “Seats allocated to the opposition will be weak because they are divided.”

That division is also something of a new test for the SRP, which has never really faced competition from opposition parties as strong as the Norodom Ranariddh Party and Human Rights Party. And these competitors have come at a time when SRP supporters are likely expecting great results from the election after 10 years of consistent progress.

“The SRP must try hard to earn more seats in the National Assembly during this year’s election to ensure the confidence and support of voters,” said Nicfec Executive Director Puthea Hang.

He said that in order to keep the confidence of its supporters, the SRP must win at least one new seat for every two new seats the CPP claims. That is, if the CPP wins 10 more seats, the SRP must win at least five more than the 24 it already holds.

Both Chea Vannath and Kek Galabru said that the SRP had to take at least 30 seats to consider this election a success. However, both added that supporters recognize the difficulties facing opposition parties in the current election environment and therefore will likely be mollified if the SRP makes any gains at all.

“If they have more than 24, then morale among supporters will be fine,” Kek Galabru said.

She added, however, that if the party breaks even or loses seats it will require some serious reevaluations for the SRP to hold onto supporters for 2013.

“They will have to figure out why some people left them and work very hard,” she said.

Chea Vannath, however, said that even if the SRP doesn’t make any gains, it would remain the opposition leader, at least for awhile, if only because the NRP and HRP are too new to have captured the public’s trust.

Nguon Nhel predicted that the SRP was going to lose seats as a result of the highly publicized defections of several top SRP officials to his party.

“There are signals to alert the SRP that their number of seats in the National Assembly is going down for this election,” he said. “I think the opposition party will suffer a big storm if they lose some seats in this election.”

Unsurprisingly, the Sam Rainsy Party completely disagrees with their chief opponent’s assessment.

SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said Thursday that the SRP is anticipating winning at least 40 seats.

She said that the party had come to this conclusion because of information gathered from door-to-door campaigning over the last three months, which she said has been a very successful strategy. She added that the party is acutely aware that supporters expect gains to be made in this election.

“Progress is progress. If we are not moving forward, we are not doing anything for the people,” she said, adding: “If we don’t get the minimum of 40 [seats], we will have to evaluate ourselves because we are looking forward to 2013.”

Mu Sochua said, however, that she believes that even though the party leadership is thinking that at least 16 more seats are well within reach, supporters will be understanding so long as the party nabs a few more seats.

“We are very clear that we going to make gains. Even if it’s five or 10 seats, with all the barriers against us it shows that we are not afraid to address issues and to go against the current,” she said.

Mu Sochua added that unity in the party was strong enough that a below-expected seat tally would not result in a barrage of finger-pointing within the party.

“We built this house together,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Katie Nelson)

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