After months of mudslinging, timely lawsuits, empty chairs at policy forums and question marks hanging over everything from the voter list to whether the opposition would even contest the election, the 2013 political campaign finally kicked off yesterday.
Top Cambodian People’s Party leaders Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samrin joined more than 100 senior party officials and about 9,000 supporters at Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island to celebrate the campaign’s start, which happened to coincide with the 62nd anniversary of the party.
Meanwhile, across town, a similar number of Cambodia National Rescue Party faithful gathered at Freedom Park, and in the absence of a leader – with Sam Rainsy in self-exile and acting leader Kem Sokha stumping in Kandal – played recorded speeches and patriotic music for a lengthy march through town.
Speaking to the roaring crowd at Koh Pich, honorary CPP president Samrin wistfully recalled the story of a party that rescued the nation from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and during its almost 35 subsequent years in power had brought stability and peace to a once fractured nation.
Doves were released by leaders, following which the well-oiled CPP party machine paraded its might through the streets.
A kilometre-long convoy of motorbikes, luxury SUVs and trucks carried youthful, dancing and flag-waving supporters down Sothearos Boulevard with a live soundtrack provided by famous bands and karaoke singers trundling down the road on mobile stages.
On the CNRP side, lengthy convoys of tuk-tuks, motos and smaller flat-bed trucks carried supporters out of Freedom Park in a haze of yellow sun logos – but despite the financial contrast with the CPP parade, party spirit was not lacking.
Incessantly cheering, singing and gleefully waving to locals who lined the roadsides and balconies of colonial-era boulevards leading into town, CNRP supporters eventually met up with Sokha, who, on his way into Phnom Penh, guided opposition hordes back towards Wat Phnom. At the temple, Sokha – who has borne the brunt of much political scandal in recent weeks – showed that though the campaign had officially started, the vitriol was not necessarily going to stop.
Followed by supporters, he climbed up to the stupa and publicly prayed for forgiveness for voters whose ballots he insinuated had been bought by an unnamed political party.
“On behalf of the [CNRP] I would like . . . to ask forgiveness for those who swore [to vote for that party] out of fear and of wanting a gift. And on July 28 please let people vote according to their will,” he prayed.
CPP lawmaker and National Assembly spokesperson Chheang Vun declined to comment on the allegation yesterday.
Speaking to a pack of reporters at Wat Phnom, Sokha said the CNRP’s political platform would win them the election, and that a CNRP government would not replace civil servants working in ministries frequently criticised for being under CPP control.
“We guarantee that there will be no war. There will be no war because our political platform does not view any Khmer as an enemy . . . When the [CNRP] wins and the ruling party loses we will call them to sit and debate.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has frequently said in the lead-up to the election that a “civil war”, or even war with Vietnam, would erupt if the opposition took power.
Playing on themes of CPP-assured stability yesterday, Heng Samrin – in lieu of the premier, who is not speaking during the month-long campaign period – warned voters a vote against the ruling party could compromise the country’s prosperity, “The right decision will bring great success but the wrong decision will bring [our country] backwards and put us in great danger,” he said.
Despite Samrin’s stern words, the CPP is expected to win the July 28 poll by a landslide.
Forty-year-old Sat Chea, who along with about 30 others, applauded the CPP convoy as it went past the Japan-Cambodia Friendship Bridge on Sothearos Boulevard, said she was impressed by the party’s organised campaign.
“I have a political party that I love and trust,” she said.
Minister of Social Affairs, Ith Samheng, said yesterday that the coordinated events were the fruit of a successful CPP government that would continue to improve its political platform.
“I am proud to see our members rally with happy and beautiful smiles from their hearts today,” he said.
A few joyous smiles turned into scowls at an isolated incident at the foot of Wat Phnom yesterday when CNRP and CPP supporters briefly clashed, with some ruling party supporters accusing opposition members of calling them “Youn” – a derogatory word for the Vietnamese.
Despite a few mild scuffles, Tep Nytha, secretary general of the NEC, said that in general the campaign had run smoothly on its first day.
“In Phnom Penh there were small shouting matches, [with participants] throwing bottles of water [at each other]. . . however the local authorities . . . resolved the problems peacefully and non-violently.”
Campaign law violations, though they did occur, were not rampant yesterday, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said last night.
Comfrel monitors – who were still gathering information – had observed several government officials participating in campaign functions out of uniform, he said, while a few state vehicles were also seen being used at provincial rallies.
“I think there were a few incidents, but it’s not enough to obstruct the election campaign,” he said.
Campaigning will continue, particularly in Siem Reap, over the weekend.
The CPP is expecting a 7,000-strong turnout for a march through the town today; Funcinpec, who held a rally in Kampong Cham yesterday, will host their biggest event there on Saturday, with some 3,000 members expected to take part; while the CNRP will host a large rally of their own on Sunday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THIK KALYANN, SEAN TEEHAN, KEVIN PONNIAH, KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA AND SHANE WORRELL