In the early afternoon yesterday, Srey Oun stood in her salon, straightening the hair of a young woman. The shop was full, every seat taken.
In contrast to many other businesses in town, the exterior is not plastered with posters endorsing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Instead, signs drawing the attention of passersby to her shop decorate the entrance.
“Even if the CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party] promotional material was available, I would not dare to put it up,” said Oun, who counts herself an opposition supporter.
Tens of thousands of people marched to the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Friday, flying their political colours. It appears, however, that this level of confidence has not extended to the business community.
“People now dare to talk, which is better than the past, but for people in business we still fear for our own safety,” said a 28-year-old nursery manager, who asked not to be named.
Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, a labour support group, said businesses are increasingly getting involved in politics, but open campaigning is still limited.
Profit is the first priority, and it is better for merchants to offer covert support, rather than make their political intentions known to the public, he said.
“They are curious about politics, and there is an increasing number of people supporting the party they love, but most of them just do it secretly [by donating money],” Pao said. “They’re just already prepared to vote for the party that they love.”
An owner of a plant shop in Phnom Penh who also asked not to be named said he has not joined the campaign thus far, but had already donated $10 to the CNRP.
“The party does not have much money, even just to buy uniforms for its supporters,” he said. “So, I just donate some money in the hope that it can help to buy some water or other things.”
The CNRP lacks the business backing of the ruling party, but small businesses are filling some of the void, according to CNRP whip Son Chhay.
“I think it is really interesting that the small business community is willing to support us in a more open way,” he said. “That is a very good sign.”
He said supporters range from small store owners in the market to bakeries, handicraft and souvenir shops, jewellery shops and restaurant owners. He added that the party had the support of a few construction companies.
In the past, Chhay said, when it was known that a shop was supporting the opposition, the local authorities would impose informal fees. But he said it’s not as threatening today, as support for the opposition is growing.
Asked what would change if the CNRP wins the election, he said they have a policy to support small businesses, because they are the ones who generate jobs and sustainable economic growth.
Many shop owners interviewed yesterday declined to comment, while others asked that their names be left out. No one said they were holding back from outwardly supporting the CNRP because of intimidation from local authorities.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the concerns were baseless, and that CNRP businesses did “raise the flag” of the opposition.
“They do have their own network to support each other. They do have the media to support them, they have the courts to protect them,” he said. “They should not be afraid.”