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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election campaign matures

Election campaign matures

As the run-up to the April 1 commune elections intensifies, new political tactics

have emerged, others have vanished, and the major parties are promising big gains

and progressive platforms.

Politicos, observers and analysts agree that the campaign atmosphere has improved,

and that pre-campaign political rhetoric has taken a softer tone. Mostly gone are

the aggressive smear tactics, anti-Vietnamese vitriol and outright political killings

that have marred earlier elections. By many accounts, Cambodian politics have matured.

But others are wondering if this is a fledgling step towards democracy or ruling-party

window-dressing.

Still, with the official campaign period beginning on March 16, it is yet to be seen

who will end up controlling the Cambodia's 1,621 commune councils - and who will

end up as April's fools.

"So far, this year has had many, many differences from 2002; the candidates

are more professional and they understand how to do a campaign much better than in

2002," said Ou Virak, executive secretary of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression.

"The general public knows what to expect. They are making more demands of their

candidates. It's pressure from these demands that's pushing the level of competition

higher. Even the ruling party has learned the language of democracy. They've learned

what to say to win votes they're getting smarter."

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said

the National Election Committee has upgraded techniques in voter and candidate registration,

and in its distribution of voter information sheets.

"But in its political willingness to have free and fair elections, the NEC still

has a lot of shortages, Panha said. "For example, as in the state-run media,

including TV and radio. The NEC has not made an effort to make access equal for all

political parties. We have seen only the ruling party. And there are security issues

in the remote areas. People still have fears: the NEC has not made an effort to cooperate

with local authorities to investigate complaints or punish any person who committed

the crime."

But Virak and other analysts have said that the public's concerns over poverty, corruption

and land grabbing have meant increased pressure on inefficient officials, and the

process of appeasing constituents is changing.

"In other elections, even 2002, the network of the communist regime was used

to win elections," Virak said. "In the old days what they did was kiss

up to the next level , and they'd receive the position. Going to the people would

have been a shock to those candidates. Now most council candidates know how elections

really work. The electorate has become more mature."

Bravado is coming from the four main camps.

"Some people are going to get a big surprise on the evening of April 1, "

said Sam Rainsy, leader of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), which won 13 commune chief

positions in 2002. "The objective that we consider realistic is to win between

200 and 300 communes, including the biggest ones. This will pave the way for our

victory [in national elections] next year."

Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information for the CPP, said on February 22 that the

ruling CPP should win about 97 or 98 percent of the commune positions and 95 percent

of the popular vote in 2008.

According to Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero, the party's hierarchy remains strong

despite the departure of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. He said Funcinpec was still able

to field candidates in 1,459 communes, or sangkats.

"At least we could get from 80 to 85 percent in the coming commune election,"

Sovathero said. "In the general national election in 2008 we are still hoping

for victory and plan to participate in the government as in previous mandates."

The newest party of the four able to field at least 1,000 candidates, the Norodom

Ranariddh Party (NRP), has high hopes Ranariddh's image will translate to grassroots

success.

"We believe we could win about 80 to 90 percent in the coming election,"

said Muth Chantha, NRP spokesman. "Before, Funcinpec won only 11 commune chiefs.

Now we hope that we will get more. We do hope to have an NRP presence in all 1,621

communes.

In 2002 the CPP won 1,596 commune chief positions, an almost 98 percent hold on grassroots

politics.

Rainsy concedes that an agreement was struck with the ruling CPP to create a milder

political atmosphere, but bristles at the assertions of NGO Human Rights Watch that

the compromise has "led to a noticeable decline in the party's role as government

watchdog and advocate of the poor."

"I met with Hun Sen and Sok An and said 'Please, can we avoid political killings

and intimidation?,'" Rainsy said. "I told them we could be competitors

and rivals without being enemies on the battlefield. Some have said I sold out. Some

have said that this is the end of the SRP. But the other side, what they don't see

is that in this 'calm' we have gotten closer to the people and there have been fewer

killings. Normally, before an election we had someone killed every week."

Rights NGO Licadho has reported five killings related to the commune elections.

"Even though the number of people being killed is less than 2002, it impacts

the process seriously - even one being killed sends a message to others," said

Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. "If just one person is killed that means

people are scared and the election is not free and fair."

For years accused of fanning nationalistic fervor aimed at the CPP's ties to Vietnam,

Rainsy now calls such strategies "counterproductive."

"In the past, especially in the 1993 election, all the non-CPP parties were

running as freedom fighters for independence; Funcinpec and Son Sann were against

a Vietnamese allied group that had a strong friendship with Hanoi," he said.

"People don't have the same mindset any more. It could divert from the real

issues."

But Virak believes there is another reason for the absence of anti-Vietnamese dialogue.

"My bet is because of the crackdown on the critics a year ago," Virak said.

"That's a main factor. Mentioning the Vietnamese issues is much riskier than

talking about democracy."

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