The relative calm that presided at polling places in Kampong Cham on Sunday belied the heavyweight political battle fought for the province’s 18 seats – the most of any province.
When the dust settled, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party had come out on top – and decisively so – taking 10 seats to the Cambodian People Party’s 8, and leaving royalists Funcinpec completely out in the cold.
However, turnout was low, as it was across the rest of the country. Sok Chhin, deputy director of Kampong Cham’s provincial election committee, said that of the province’s 1.28 million registered voters, only 69 per cent actually cast a ballot, though he didn’t know why, he added.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of big-name candidates.
The CNRP’s Kem Sokha, Funcinpec’s Norodom Arun Reaksmey and the CPP’s Heng Samrin – all of whom are in the highest levels of leadership in their respective parties – ran for seats in Kampong Cham, and all three arrived to vote Sunday morning, delivering impromptu predictions to a throng of media with varying degrees of accuracy.
Sokha – the CNRP’s highest-ranking member to actually cast a vote – had high expectations for his party, saying he hoped the united opposition would pick up 12 seats, and going on to turn an assessment of the ruling party’s chances into an oblique criticism of the polls’ much-lambasted “indelible” ink.
“If the voting is fair, they cannot get 11 seats,” he said from the courtyard of a local school. “When the two [opposition] parties were not joined, the CPP got 11 seats, so if they still get 11 seats, it means that they stole them. And they can steal them, as I said, when they can clean the black ink [from their fingers] so they can vote twice.”
CPP honorary president Samrin, however, was – as it turns out, wrongly – dismissive of the opposition’s influence in the province, predicting that the party would handily hold the 11 seats it currently occupies.
“I believe that the CPP will receive 11 seats for this election,” said the diminutive Samrin, completely blocked from view by a scrum of reporters. “Even though the CNRP has some supporters, they cannot receive more seats than the CPP.”
Funcinpec president Arun Reaksmey, for her part, was decidedly more modest, but her hopes of winning two seats still overshot the mark.
Despite the party’s well-documented fall from grace, pockets of support for Funcinpec still existed, especially among older generations. For 74-year-old voter Dul Chhin, the wounds of the Lon Nol coup in 1970 are still fresh.
“I’m still angry with the Lon Nol regime,” he said on Sunday, lighting a cigarette after casting his vote. “The king had a lot of support, so why did they do that?”
The opposition also held little allure for Chhin, who maintained that “Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy… don’t have power, but when they get it, they’ll do the same as Hun Sen”.
On the other side of the generational and political divide, was 29-year-old Sok Dara, who said it was precisely the differences between the opposition and the ruling party that made him change his mind after voting CPP in 2008.
“The reason that I came to vote is that I just want to change the leaders,” Dara said, noting that the sentiment was widely shared by his friends and co-workers. “It’s been 30 years already, and we’re still not developed.”
“If Kem Sokha wins, I hope they’ll develop the country more,” he added, standing in the courtyard where Sokha had delivered his remarks to the press moments earlier.
According to Dara, it was a closer look at the parties that prompted his change of heart in this mandate.
“Before, I voted for the CPP, but I didn’t know their policy is,” he said. “But now that I know every party’s policy, I changed to the CNRP.”
But the opposition did not have a monopoly on youth support in Kampong Cham. Student Huy Dlan, 23, was proof positive of the nigh-insurmountable impact of the ruling party’s deep pockets.
“A good leader knows about the people’s pain. If the people have a problem, they should go down and talk to them,” she said.
“I will vote for the CPP because they can develop the country … and they pay the fee for my school,” she added.
The CNRP’s Sokha has himself used education to gain a foothold among youth in Kampong Cham town, where he has operated a free school for several years.
Opposition promises to raise civil servant wages, however, had no draw for policeman Oum Sophat, who was paid $2 by the NEC to work security at a polling station. According to the opposition’s stated aim of raising the minimum wage of civil servants to $250 a month, a policeman like Sophat would earn roughly $8 for a day’s work.
Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t care about what the CNRP said about the minimum wage.”
Sophat declined to say who he would be voting for, however.
All told, the opposition’s foothold has long been growing in Kampong Cham. It has steadily improved its position over the course of the past three elections, practically in tandem with royalist parties’ waning returns.
In 2007’s commune elections, the Sam Rainsy Party won 29 per cent of the vote, with 12 per cent going to royalist parties. In 2008’s national elections, the SRP and the then-new Human Rights Party won a combined 36 per cent, compared to the royalists’ 10. Last year, commune elections saw that gain solidified, with the SRP and HRP taking 40 per cent of the vote, leaving a scant 6 per cent to the royalists.
Those trends held fast on Sunday. At the Teak Ksen polling station, in dingy schoolrooms adorned with posters depicting the five senses and the technique for a proper sompeah, there was a palpable sense of giddiness among onlookers as election officials called out each vote.
Calls of the CNRP’s leik prampi quickly overtook the ruling party’s leik boon – respectively, No 4 and No 7, the positions each party were placed on the ballot – and they held strong. At the end of the tally, the station – like so many others across the province – had gone to the opposition.