Soaked through by a rainstorm in Kandal province last week, opposition leader Kem Sokha sat on the roof of his black SUV as villagers took their first glimpse of a man who just five years ago was a mere speck on the political landscape.
Though relatively unknown at the last national election in 2008, Mr. Sokha’s newly formed Human Rights Party (HRP) still walked away with more seats than Funcinpec, the party that won the country’s first election in 1993 following decades of civil war.
Five years on, and Mr. Sokha is creating a stir as he travels from province to province in a determined attempt to challenge the decades-old rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In contrast, Mr. Hun Sen has maintained his promised silence since the official election campaign period began on June 27—perhaps a sign of just how confident he is that the outcome of the vote is a foregone conclusion.
But the question remains: Will the ruling CPP continue their trend of increasing seats in the National Assembly as each election rolls around, or can Mr. Sokha and his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) put a serious dent in Mr. Hun Sen’s 28-year grip on power?
The CPP has told the country that a vote for the party will guarantee peace, stability, strong national defense and more economic growth. The CNRP meanwhile is promising a serious fight to root out institutional corruption, increasing the minimum wage, rolling out a national pension fund and increasing state revenues by taxing the country’s largest, and politically connected, businesses, particularly in the freewheeling casino sector.
There’s also a catch.
Mr. Hun Sen has warned that victory for the CNRP—a party formed last year in a merger between Mr. Sokha’s HRP and the SRP—risks sending the country back into civil war.
The prime minister didn’t say who exactly would fight this civil war, but he seemed to see the contours of the looming conflict clearly.
Ahead of the July 28 vote, observers have said the election is slanted in favor of the CPP due to a far-from-perfect voter list that could deny the right to cast a ballot to up to 10 percent of the electorate. The U.S. has also called for the safe return of CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile after being sentenced to 11 years in jail on charges that human rights workers have said are politically motivated.
Setting the criticism aside, Mr. Hun Sen’s reign in the Asia-Pacific region is surpassed only by the Sultan of Brunei, and his leadership has ensured stability for Cambodia.
Economic growth is expected to reach more than 7 percent this year. Cambodians are buying cars and motorcycles at rates never before seen. A growing middle class has emerged and they are buying homes, taking out loans for small and medium-sized businesses and benefiting from the conditions put in place over the past two decades by the ruling CPP.
How those achievements measure up for sections of the population fed up with the entrenched rule of the CPP, corrupt officials, impunity and the lack of jobs will determine the gains and losses for the CPP.
From interviews with dozens of voters in Phnom Penh, where both the CPP and the CNRP held large rallies over the weekend, it is clear that election fever has set in, and views are clearly varied on how the country has fared over the past five years.
Ma Dien, 31, an elegantly dressed teacher’s assistant at the International School of Phnom Penh and a fluent English speaker, is fed up at seeing the same three figureheads in charge of the country.
“I want to see the opposition party’s ability to change Cambodia. I want to see something change, even if it’s just a little bit,” she said, underlining high levels of corruption, poor wages, impunity within the justice system and human rights abuses as the areas where she wants to see change the most.
“I don’t want to see the same thing all over again. It’s been nearly 30 years of the same guy. Can we not see someone different?” she asked while sipping on a fruit shake at the Blue Pumpkin cafe on Phnom Penh’s riverside.
Ms. Dien acknowledged that the past five years in Cambodia have seen unprecedented growth with Mr. Hun Sen at the head of the government. But too many graduates are leaving university to find employment in poorly paid jobs that do not match their studies, she said. She is a case in point having studied marketing and taking a job as a teacher’s assistant after several failed attempts at securing a job with a marketing firm.
Chantha, who works in the administration department at the same school and only gave her first name, has not yet decided who she is going to vote for, but she lets it be known that the mark on her ballot paper will not be lying next to number four, the CPP’s ballot number.
“We can say things are better in the country, but the gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger,” she said. “I want to see something change. I want to see what will happen if someone else leads the country.”
Sitting nearby in a crisp orange shirt, tapping away at his laptop and eating a custard-filled Danish pastry, Chea Vibol, 25, said he voted for the ruling CPP in 2008 when the country was embroiled in armed conflict with Thailand at Preah Vihear temple.
But there has been peace on the border for years now and there are new problems facing Cambodia.
“The prime minister has been present for a long time. So I want to see change. People in rural areas are facing many problems when it comes to land concessions and human rights abuses,” said Mr. Vibol, who works for a local health NGO. “Other countries in the region like Vietnam and Thailand change leaders. Why can’t Cambodia?”
He said that he viewed the country as split. There are those, he said, who still give the CPP huge legitimacy for ousting the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979. And then there is the younger generation, who has entered into a post-Khmer Rouge era and are more aware about the issues facing Cambodia today—not 30 years ago.
“Many of the young people in the country study at university or work in factories,” he said. “These young people know all about Cambodia’s problems.”
Beyond the promises and policies, there is also the question of leadership.
Mr. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s undisputed strongman, remains a convincing orator and has vast experience in running the country.
In 2007, a year before the last election, then-U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli wrote in a secret diplomatic cable that Mr. Sokha’s entry onto the political scene only served to weaken the opposition due to “the inability of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to overcome their differences and add a sense of direction to Cambodia’s democratic opposition in the advance of the 2008 national elections.”
Today, these same two men are pictured holding hands on campaign posters that dot the countryside. But Mr. Mussomeli’s view on Mr. Sokha’s ability to gain political traction remains true to this day.
“In Cambodian politics, personality and ego reign supreme. Kem Sokha’s announcement of a decision to start his own party was the easy part; the difficult part will be the development of a party structure on a national level,” he wrote.
That observation was seven years ago—much has changed.
At the T&C coffee shop and restaurant on Street 214, Vicheka, a lawyer in his mid-twenties, who asked that only his first name be used, said Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodia was going along just fine. As far as he is concerned, Mr. Hun Sen has earned the right to rule the country for the next five years.
“I see a lot more investment coming into the country. The government has attracted many foreign investors and signed trade agreements with many countries. I travel to the provinces and I have seen a lot of improvements. I see that people are on track and doing more business,” he said.
Mr. Vicheka also said Mr. Hun Sen was getting his vote because his government offered predictability; in short, more of the fast economic growth and urban development of the past five years.
“It’s hard for me to see what they are doing,” he said, referring to the opposition party. “Despite the corruption and bureaucracy in the government, I see a lot of improvement. Corruption happens in a lot of countries. You cannot blame the government for this,” he said.
Others have more obvious reasons for voting for Mr. Hun Sen.
Monique Vann, 21, who was also in T&C, said her first vote in a national election will be for Mr. Hun Sen. She said that her father is a pilot for the prime minister, who she credits with improving the country’s infrastructure and building hundreds of schools.
“The opposition just speaks a lot. There are many words floating about, but no action,” she said.
On a nearby table sat three young males, all engineers who earn more than $1,000 per month. In front of them on the table a host of expensive smartphones. Two of the men said they are going to vote CNRP and the other man said he is still undecided.
“This time I vote for the CNRP,” said Soyha Hung, 28, a bit of a joker with a diamond ring on his
finger, adding that in 2008 he voted for the CPP. “I want the opposition to have their voice in the National Assembly. Obviously, I don’t think they will win.”
His friend Sovithea Chhoeun, 29, then chipped in, explaining that while his life had improved under the government of Mr. Hun Sen, his political orientations had changed over the past five years.
“We should not be selfish with our vote. It’s about choosing the best party for our country,” he said.
Such differing views are commonplace in Phnom Penh. But there are also voters in other parts of the country where a vote is not a personal decision.
Mo Ra, 31, is representative of many of the CPP’s traditional voters. Ever since he can remember, his family—all rice farmers in Kompong Thom province—have voted for the ruling party.
“All my relatives are with the CPP and my uncle is a commune chief in Kompong Thom province,” he said.
Mr. Ra, who is in Phnom Penh to help with construction work to Wat Ounalom, said he thought the opposition’s platform for this year’s election was a positive one, but that he had not paid much attention to the campaign so far as his vote was already a forgone conclusion.
“I don’t hate the opposition leader, and haven’t really held much discussion on him,” he said, referring to Mr. Sokha. “But I don’t know what to do, because my family are all already aligned with the CPP.”
For others, however, change is a real possibility.
On Friday, at Brown Coffee and Bakery on Street 57, Land Cruisers with shiny alloy wheels and a black Bentley sat nestled between brightly colored motorcycles adorned with stickers and racy accessories. Looking at the wealth on display, one would be forgiven for thinking the electorate in Brown was financially privileged and pro-CPP. But a desire for change was in the air here too.
Take the 42-year-old manager of a boutique hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, who preferred to keep his identity secret. His business has grown exponentially over the past five years as tourist arrivals blossomed. But he does not confuse the success he has encountered with the lot of the country at large.
“We just want to change the leader. I hope a lot of people think like me,” he said. “Educated people, I can see some. The rest are just doing a lot of corruption. Now it’s time to change this country. Look, last month the Australian prime minister resigned. It’s simple.”
Sam On, 42, an official working for the Ministry of Interior, is playing his cards close to his chest and won’t declare who he is going to vote for on July 28. But he says the government is worried about the growing amount of support for the opposition, a fear, he says, that can be seen in the monumental effort being made on television channels and in campaign events in the provinces to gain votes for the ruling party.
“The CPP are working extremely hard to do promotion and propaganda. It’s a sign that they feel they might lose some seats in the results,” said Mr. On, who was dressed in a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I don’t think the results from this election will be based on the amount of activity they [the CPP] do” during the campaign.
“Even people inside the CPP, think things should change. If you eat the same soup over and over again—even if the soup is delicious—it will always end up tasting disgusting,” he said.
“People with less education, recently they have some ideas. For example, the government banned foreign radio broadcasts during the election campaign. They [ordinary people] feel upset because they want to know the information” on the radio, he said.
“There is a history of cracking down on people since the Khmer Rouge regime. People don’t speak out and share ideas easily…. I’m CPP, but you don’t know who I am or who I will vote for.”
There were other reasons people interviewed said they wanted to support the opposition party.
Piseth, 24, who owns a construction business with three friends, says the government has no clear policy on immigration and believes there are too many foreigners doing jobs that Cambodians can do themselves. He also says he wants to see more transparency in government.
“Now we have no historical documents about what the government is doing. There is so much secrecy,” he said. “On TV, we see beautiful images of the country, but we never see what lies behind. On the other side of that landscape there are a lot of problems—there is violence and corruption.”
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