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Asia

Opposition harbors limited hope in Cambodia poll

Few observers expect the ruling Cambodian People's Party to lose the country's forthcoming elections. However, all eyes are on the opposition's performance after the return from exile of its party leader, Sam Rainsy.

The welcome that Sam Rainsy received on Friday surprised even the veteran opposition leader, who described it as "incredible". An estimated 100,000 supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) - the only credible challenger to the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) - took to the streets to cheer his journey from the airport to a park in the center of the capital where he addressed a 20,000-strong crowd.

The welcome surely stunned the CPP too, which after three decades of near total political control and the consequent benefits of power and patronage is accustomed to having things its own way. The CPP's tight grip on media - all television stations, most radio stations and the key Khmer-language newspapers are aligned with the ruling party - meant Sam Rainsy's return after a four-year absence went unnoticed by many Cambodians ("a scandal," one diplomat called it) even as it made headlines around the world.

The following day the opposition leader took to the road with CNRP deputy Kem Sokha on a whirlwind nationwide tour to woo voters living outside the capital as the two men seek to boost the party's tally of 29 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. Meantime the CPP's campaign, practiced and slick with cash, barely missed a step as the ruling party does its best to retain its 90 seats.

A mixed bag of complaints

Fears that someone might try to target the popular opposition leader or those close to him have so far proved unfounded. In fact, as observers have noted, this election has proven much less violent than previous ballots.

Cambodian opposition leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy (C) raises his arm with Kem Sokha (centre L) (Photo: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Rainsy returned to a tumultuous welcome, but no prospect of being a candidate

But it has not been without incident, as Transparency International Cambodia, a non-profit, stated on Tuesday. Among the problems: at least two shootings, in which fortunately nobody was injured. There have been minor clashes, too, between supporters of the two main parties, reports of vote-buying, and colossal bias towards the CPP by national media.

Another area Transparency International highlighted was Monday's decision by the National Election Committee (NEC) - the body that oversees the election - to reject Rainsy's efforts to run as a candidate.

Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary seat and the right to run or to vote after his 2010 conviction, seen by many as politically motivated, for an array of crimes. His return last week followed international pressure. A pardon engineered by Prime Minister Hun Sen quashed the conviction, and an 11-year jail term.

The NEC, regularly criticized as being beholden to the CPP, said there was not enough time to reinstate Sam Rainsy as either a candidate or a voter ahead of Sunday's ballot. Transparency International warned that this denial "could compromise the legitimacy of the election outcome."

Rainsy said the ruling merely confirmed that election was a charade.

"An election without a challenger for the outgoing [sic] prime minister is meaningless and worthless," he told the Cambodia Daily newspaper. "Nobody will accept such an election."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during the opening ceremony of the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee, Phnom Penh (Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA)

Cambodian premier Hun Sen is understood to have been pressured into pardoning Rainsy

Opposition delegate Son Chhay told DW that his CNRP colleagues were seeking alternative mechanisms to have the party leader compete, adding: "I don't believe it's going to make any difference."

There have been other complaints. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said senior military and police figures - all of whom belong to the CPP - have been campaigning for the ruling party. HRW warned that their partisanship had created "an intimidating atmosphere for voters in many parts of the country."

"Cambodia's armed forces and police should be nonpartisan state institutions, but during the pre-election period they have acted as the campaign arm for Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling party," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, who described the security forces as "a de facto wing of the ruling party."

"Security forces that act on behalf of one party skew election results and make the process unfair for other parties and candidates," Adams said, adding that the situation was even more serious given Hun Sen's numerous warnings this year that a win for the opposition would see the country plunged into civil war.

In short, said HRW, the ruling party's penchant for electoral intimidation has changed little over the past 20 years, and it has called on the UN and donors to take a stand on the issue.

The same, but different?

Back on the streets, electioneering is heading into its final days, with style regularly trumping substance and personality eclipsing policy. The month-long campaigning season has been colorful and noisy, and characterized by crocodiles of young people on motorbikes chanting party mantras and festooned with the hats, t-shirts and flags of their allegiance.

In many ways, then, this election has much in common with its predecessors. But there have been some changes, and perhaps the most important was the opposition's belated decision to craft a coherent policy platform around raising living standards: promising to boost civil servant wages; to nearly double the minimum wage for garment workers and to institute a $10 monthly pension for the elderly.

The CNRP's Chhay says all three policies have resonated with voters, and expects that many ruling party supporters - including civil servants, many of whom have "been living very difficult lives" on low salaries – will switch their vote.

Campaigning activities by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (Photo: Abby Seiff in Phnom Penh heute)

The Cambodian People's Party is seen as a safe option, especially by older voters

"A lot of old people are advising their children and grandchildren to vote for our party," he says of the effects of the pensions pledge. He is also hopeful that hundreds of thousands of urban workers will persuade their families in rural areas to vote CNRP.

"Most of these workers are [financially] supporting their relatives back in the home villages," he says. "We believe they can influence their relatives."

With the NEC expected to release its provisional assessment late on Sunday, it will not be long before all eight parties learn how successful their campaigning efforts have been. The question uppermost in the minds of many observers is whether the opposition will wrest seats from the CPP, and, if so, how many.

Part of the answer will depend on whether the ruling party seeks to exploit flaws in the electoral roll: 10 percent of the names on the list are thought to be ghost voters, while the list is missing a similar number of genuine voters whose names should be on it.

Better the devil you know

Another will depend on whether the CPP can capitalize on its popularity - particularly in rural areas where most voters live - echoing its resounding win in last year's local elections. Older people who remember the dark days of the Khmer Rouge appreciate the party's role in bringing peace, and analyst Chea Vannath believes many will "play it safe" by voting CPP.

A woman shouts at police (Photo: Irwin Loy)

The police and military are accused of too often taking the side of the ruling party

Another CPP election-time pillar is its central role in developing Cambodia, and it is true that the country today enjoys improved health and education metrics, better roads and more jobs, especially in the garment and construction sectors.

But most workers are poorly paid and there are frustratingly few openings for the 300,000 young people entering the job market annually. With 1.5 million first-time voters, the youth vote could prove important.

In addition the scourge of land-grabbing has too often proven a downside of development for hundreds of thousands of urban and rural poor. At the same time the glut of luxury vehicles and swank villas in this impoverished country indicate that the fruits of development and corruption are benefiting a narrow elite.

So while the overall outcome of this complicated mix is not in much doubt – a CPP win – many in the corridors of power will be watching keenly to see how 9.5 million votes translate into seats. Cambodia is changing fast, and the next general election is just five years away.

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