In Cambodia's northwesterly province of Battambang, far from the flashpoint provinces surrounding Phnom Penh, a quiet battle was waged over the weekend.
It pitted Sar Kheng, the Interior Minister, an established and powerful-ruling party figure in Battambang town against Mu Sochua, an opposition lawmaker and human rights advocate who was sent there expressly to try and erode his position.
On Sunday morning, the town’s streets, which had been eerily quiet a day earlier, were a hive of activity as clearly excited voters marched to the polls from 7am.
Sar Vanna, a 34-year-old monk, said after casting his vote that he wished that this year’s election had been closer to the UN-administered polls in 1993 that allowed Cambodians to more easily vote away from their home villages.
Still, he was clearly happy to have the chance to contribute to democratic change.
“It’s time to change the face of Cambodia. Look at Thailand, or Japan, they change their leaders a lot.”
Before the vote, Sochua said that three seats for her Cambodia National Rescue Party out of eight available would be a “given”, while four would be a “battle”.
As he cast his ballot yesterday, Sar Kheng, flanked by bodyguards and party officials, predicted an easy hold on the six seats his Cambodian People’s Party won in 2008.
“I can’t predict [the outcome] but I can say that the CPP will not lose and we can at least maintain 6 seats [in Battambang],” he told the Post.
More than 12 hours later, when the results finally trickled out, it appeared Sochua had been right – four seats for the CNRP was a stretch.
Despite a veritable army of grassroots youth CNRP supporters in Battambang joining the opposition wave that swept the country yesterday, the CPP lost just one seat.
Even the loss of one-seat for Sar Kheng, however, who symbolically lost the popular vote at the town polling station where he cast his own ballot, is likely to be seen as a significant weakening of his party’s grip over the province.
Soul-searching may have already begun at the CPP’s fortress-like headquarters in town, while in a contrasting image, according to Sochua, opposition youth leaders shed tears of joy at their party’s ramshackle base last night – despite grievances over the fairness of the vote.
The night before the poll, security officials and authorities were seen by the *Post *patrolling in villages on the outskirts of Battambang town in a seeming effort to intimidate voters.
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A 54-year-old living in Thma Koul district’s Chrey commune said that the guards had walked close to his home with torches, preventing his family from sleeping out of fear before the vote.
“We just put a CNRP sticker on a tree in front of my home. At night they walked so many times near my house. It really scared us but we did not dare to complain to them.”
Polling day in Battambang however, did not see any of the violence or large protests that erupted in other areas of the country.
Sar Kheng casted his ballot at Svay Por commune in the glare of numerous television cameras at around 9am without incident, telling the *Post* the election environment was much more “”peaceful” and “orderly” than in the past.
As Mu Sochua also waited in line to cast her ballot at a local school, election officials tried to convince her to skip the queues and vote quickly to avoid political tension with commune officials gathered to vote at the same station.
But she refused.
“If I skip the queue, it will compromise the votes for my party,” she said.
“There is no line for candidates here…People will think I think I am special.”
Khoem Samral, a commune election committee official in charge of a polling centre, said that voting had progressed far more smoothly than at last year’s commune elections.
“This year we don’t have any problems. It’s much better. We try to make politicians leave after they vote [now] as last year [both parties] came in and they argued,” he said.
A particular concern in Battambang was the issuance of almost 100,000 identification certificate for election (ICE) forms that allow voters without proper identification to vote if approved by commune officials, raising fears that ‘ghost voters’ could assume the identities of others en masse in the province.
75-year-old Cheng Sim, a street side seller hawking cakes outside a small polling centre, said although she had voted in the previous four elections she lost her identification documents before this one.
Unlike numerous other voters seen clutching ICE forms at polling centres, however, Sim said she was unaware that she could have obtained one.
“I really want to vote for the peace and happiness of my country,” she said.
Despite widespread concerns of missing voter names, Commune Election Committee official Samral said that the first few hours of voting had seen hundreds cast their ballot at his station, with only one voter turned away due to registration issues.
“We focus on three major [identifiers]: name, sex and address. If two are wrong we do not allow them to vote. If one is wrong we allow them but we compare their face with the [photo] on their ID.”
Most complaints received were due to long waiting times at the polling station, rather than voter registration problems, he added.
But Sar Srey Nech, 20, said she was unable to vote as her name was listed incorrectly at her assigned polling centre.
“I tried to find my name at the polling centre but my first name was wrong. I really want to vote to support the party I like and I want to fulfill my duty as a citizen, but now I can’t,” she said.
At one town polling centre, CEC staff had some difficulty ejecting a man -who after having voted, refused to leave the polling grounds and then fell into a shouting match with CNRP officials.
The CNRP claimed the man, 54-year-old Horn Pheakdey, was a well-known CPP supporter in Battambang town and was sent there to intimidate voters.
“His rickshaw is totally decorated with CPP logos and propaganda. He is very well known…in the whole city of Battambang. I spotted him because we all know him…I said if he leaves, then I will leave,” Mu Sochua said.
But Pheakdey, wearing a pith helmet, insisted he was just a normal citizen who had come to vote.
“I am a simple person. Why can I not wait here? I am waiting for my family. [The CNRP] want to do what [they] want but it violates law and democracy,” he said.
In another incident in Battambang town’s Tuol Taek commune, CNRP officials cried foul that a CPP office was located not 40 metres from a polling station set up in a health centre.
Still, according to election watchdog Comfrel, just four cases of polling irregularities were reported from Battambang, making up just two percent of the nation’s total.