When Sam Rainsy’s momentous return to Cambodia is completed on Friday – once the speeches have been delivered and the cheers die down – the opposition leader’s focus will almost immediately turn to the provinces.
That Rainsy will set off the following morning for a weeklong tour of 15 provinces suggests he has identified a need to test just how far public esteem for him stretches – and to what extent it can help capture the CNRP extra votes.
Hordes of Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters surging through the streets of Phnom Penh on Sunday night, celebrating their leader’s imminent return, demonstrated how prominent a political figure Rainsy is among urban voters. But what about in the provinces?
“Rainsy is popular everywhere,” party spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday, adding that the leader – who has spent nearly four years in self-imposed exile in Paris – would have no trouble connecting with rural voters. “He will invite people from communities to provincial towns, and then they will go back and spread the information.”
It might not be so easy, however, to capture the vote of rural farmers who have little access to media and often rely on their village and commune chiefs for information and services, political analyst Chea Vannath said.
“But I think it’s a good move to go down to the grassroots level,” she said. “I think people will be excited [to see Rainsy]. At least they will be curious.”
As far as opposition figures go, Vannath said, Rainsy is as popular as they come.
“He is the only person capable of matching it with the prime minister,” she said. “His popularity makes him different from [deputy CNRP leader] Kem Sokha. Maybe those that are undecided will change their vote since he’s here.”
Hang Puthea, director of election watchdog NICFEC, said it was difficult to know what inroads the CNRP would make in the provinces that Rainsy visited, but the party would benefit greatly just from having such a familiar face touring towns.
“I think anywhere he goes, people [listen],” he said.
Sovann believes the excitement of Rainsy’s return will also translate into many more votes in the capital.
“A lot of people now want to join the events [at the airport and Freedom Park],” he said. “We’ve asked those in the provinces to stay there and keep campaigning.”
But the CPP maintains Rainsy’s return is merely hype that won’t affect the election result, lawmaker Chheang Vun said.
“His presence is of no concern to us – that’s why we asked for him to be pardoned. If we were concerned, we would not ask for his return,” he said.
Vun said Rainsy – who at this stage cannot run as a candidate – might be able to return to parliament in the future, but not before the election.
It is precisely that point which has drawn calls for the Cambodian government to go a step further and allow Rainsy to be re-listed on the voter rolls. In a statement released yesterday, UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi said he welcomed Rainsy’s pardon.
“I now hope … the Government will take the necessary action in order to allow Sam Rainsy to play a full part in the politics of Cambodia.”