At 25, Sin Chan Pov Rozeth is the youngest candidate running for commune chief in the June 3 election and faces a ruling party opponent more than half a century her senior.
The young Sam Rainsy Party hopeful is pitted against the Cambodian People’s Party Kem Chhorng, 78, who has been the chief of O’Char commune in Battambang town since just after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979.
Sin Chan Pov Rozeth’s former job was selling quails here, where she grew up with only her mother, who sells vegetables for a living and lives in the SRP headquarters.
But for the past week, she has been aggressively selling something more abstract: a campaign message to end alleged corruption in the commune, build a healthcare centre and construct a sewer system to stop continual flooding.
“Even though my competitor is old and has experience, I still hope that I will beat him, because in the 20 years that he has been a commune chief, he has not served people well but thinks about money; there has been no development for people,” she said.
The first-time candidate, who has actively supported the SRP since she was 11 years old, said it was the will to develop, not experience and gender, that is important.
“In Thailand, they voted for a woman to lead the country. Why in our O’Char commune can people not vote for a woman to lead?” she said.
Kem Chhorng says her promises are full of hot air and wants to know where the money is going to come from to build the pledged projects when the national budget offers the commune scant funding.
“What she says is just to attract, for her pride. She looks pretty but she is young, she does not have experience and she cannot do. She has never been a commune chief,” he said.
“Since 1979, I have never lost any time an election for commune chief so far. If I threaten people for money, they would not vote for me,” he said, adding that in that time he had built four schools in four separate villages.
He added that he was old and would agree to leave politics if he lost, but said he was 100 per cent confident he would win the seat, and that the CPP would gain two more councillors in O’Char commune.
Currently, they have seven councillors in O’Char compared to the SRP’s four.
Out on the campaign trail, Sin Chan Pov Rozeth is winning supporters, at least at face value, including 90-year-old Om Heb, who assures her he will be voting SRP on June 3.
“Women work well. I would try with her once. The men are [too] busy looking at the road,” he said, after hearing her confident campaign pitch, which sometimes includes a portable, stand-mounted flat-screen TV blaring out SRP campaign videos.
The CPP are taking a less personalised approach to campaigning in Battambang, driving through town in huge convoys of hundreds of flag-waving supporters on motorbikes and dozens of cars blurting out their campaign slogans from loudspeakers.
Sin Chan Pov Rozeth faces an uphill battle against this show of force, and once again this campaign, there have been widespread allegations of political intimidation.
Just yesterday, the SRP announced they would file a criminal complaint over an alleged assault on their Battambang district councillor, Khy Meng Lynh, by a CPP member – an attack they say resulted in a dislocated collarbone.
Another problem, said political observer Son Soubert, was the division between the SRP and smaller opposition parties such as the Human Rights Party and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which yesterday announced plans to merge with Funcinpec.
“Well, I just wish that they get better, but I doubt it, because when the opposition is not united, the people will be divided, and some will go to the Sam Rainsy and some to the HRP."
In the battle for the O’Char seat, the SRP is also contesting the soon-to-be-merged NRP and Funcinpec.
More important than the influence of an emerging, politically aware younger generation, is the reaction to the continuing escalation of land disputes at the ballot box, Son Soubert said.
And there is another factor that might work against Sin Chan Pov Rozeth’s campaign – the mass migration of young people in the area seeking jobs in Thailand, which has escalated amidst the Thai government’s pledge to raise the minimum daily wage to 300 baht (US$9.50).
Most people in Battambang town are understandably reluctant to say who they will support in the election, but they unanimously agree there has been at least one positive democratic sign – far more vigorous campaigning from all parties.
These commune elections mean nothing in terms of real parliamentary muscle, but as a key battleground at next year’s National Assembly elections, they will provide an indication of whether Cambodians are willing to consider change.
With SRP MP Mu Sochua set to face off directly with CPP Interior Minister Sar Kheng in Battambang in the 2013 ballot, the result will provide insight in what is set to be a fierce battle on the biggest political stage.