Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Cambodian election: change or no change?

Last July, some of my colleagues were showing a mix of frustration, incredulity and hopelessness. Results from the commune council elections (local elections) showed that the ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), had won 72% of all seats. The two main opposition parties (Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party) could only manage 26% seats between them.

L-R: Chea Sim (President, Senate), Hun Sen (Prime Minister), Heng Samrin (Chairman, National Assembly)
Together, they have ruled Cambodia since 1979 with Hun Sen the most powerful - top man since 1985. Such billboards are everywhere throughout the country crediting these three men with all development - schools are often named after them.
Despite the CPP being in power since the invading Vietnamese installed them in 1979, this was further proof that their dominance has been increasing with every election. Some colleagues felt let down by their countrymen, finding it hard to accept that others did not see the need for change that they believed in. Or rather, they felt that people had sold a brighter future for a sarong or few dollars - usual gifts given out by the ruling party before elections.

Now some of those people are hoping again. The two opposition parties merged to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its President, Sam Rainsy, returned last Friday from years of exile (fear of imprisonment) to be welcomed by 100,000 people. This Sunday, Cambodians will vote in national elections and the shouts of "change!" are being heard louder than ever before.

The CNRP is number 7 on the ballot list so this is the popular sign of support for them.  The CPP is number 4.
This was taken at the rally welcoming back Sam Rainsy. I was passing by & took this video
Two weeks ago, I was having dinner with a Khmer friend at a restaurant and we could hear motos driving past shouting "change!" at each other. We then saw a convoy of motos with the leader shouting "Change or no change?" and the masses yelling "Change" in response. The waitress in the restaurant started talking openly (in Khmer) about her distaste for the ruling party and the corruption within it. Only weeks before, even if in English which most don't understand, this conversation would have been conducted in hushed tones.

Every night now, there are throngs of mainly young people out on their motos driving around Phnom Penh. The numbers are huge and the fervour is real, drawing people form their houses to support them as they go past. A friend in Takhmao (large town near Phnom Penh) says the same is happening there and another back from Battambang (a large town) was surprised to see so many people out there too.

CPP campaign parade with loudspeaker, music, big screen and video playing. A lot higher tech than the CNRP parades like the one that took 30 minutes to go past my flat on Sunday - here's a video (shorter than 30 mins...)
Of course, the CPP have their convoys and parades, which are also numerous. But, in Phnom Penh at least, the fervour is not there. As some colleagues explained, many people are on the streets because the CPP pays you money, food and petrol, whereas for the CNRP, tuk tuk drivers are donating two days salary for the campaign.

CPP parade just near my work
This fervour is worrying some people. The Prime Minister has predicted a troublesome future if the CPP loses the election and the reality is that the CPP still have enough support in the predominant rural areas to win the election, probably easily. And if they didn't, they would still ensure that they won the election. The whole state - crucially the army and police - are subsumed under the control of the ruling party.

I think most believe that the CPP will win but that it will be closer than before and that this will be a step towards a much closer election next time. The worry is that with great fervour, can come great disappointment. How the people who believe in change react will be the key to whether that next election will be closer or not.


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