If the three major parties were competing in a road race rather than an election,
Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) would be in a high-end jeep,
ready for the rough roads of the country as well as the relatively well-paved cities
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy would be in a sleek sports car, good in the cities but
not as useful on the village dirt roads, while Funcinpec's Prince Norodom Ranariddh
would be on a moto with a flat tire. Worse still for the Prince, it appears that
Rainsy may have taken his car.
The SRP made strong gains across the nation, but mostly in the cities and towns.
In the face of these SRP gains, the CPP also gained seats in the National Assembly
over its 1998 total. The overall loser was Funcinpec, which saw a major drop in support
continuing the slide that began in 1998.
The SRP's spokesman, Ung Bun Ang, says the opposition benefited from the fact that
people living in urban areas are better off and less fearful.
"Usually in towns most people are literate and highly educated, so they are
not afraid of being threatened. No one can use money to buy their votes," says
Bun Ang. "That is why we see a big gap between the ballot results in towns and
in the countryside. For those in the village, the CPP could buy their vote at just
2,000 to 3,000 riel."
And although the SRP won a convincing victory in Phnom Penh, the results in the most
populous province, Kampong Cham, probably provide a better view. The CPP won 286,577
votes in the province, while the SRP took 164,511. Funcinpec came a close third with
The provincial capital itself was again won by the SRP with 9,391 votes against 5,947
for the CPP. Funcinpec took a pounding, claiming just 1,842 votes.
At the last general election in 1998, the CPP won 246,900 votes in the province,
with 5,120 in Kampong Cham town. Funcinpec actually won the province, with 277,362
of which 6,903 were in town. The SRP trailed in third overall with 96,720 votes,
7,077 of them in Kampong Cham town.
In short, Funcinpec's votes in the province were cannibalized by its two rivals,
with the SRP taking almost twice as many votes off the royalists as the CPP did.
The result is that the SRP made strong gains, but not at the expense of the ruling
party, which is why the provincial CPP leadership is able to shrug off the opposition's
"I'm not worried because our results increased in 2003," says Khlot Phan,
a local CPP leader. "The real fluctuation has been between the SRP and Funcinpec."
And that is one reason the royalists in the province are worried. The party won the
country's largest province last time with eight of the 18 seats. Although seat allocations
have not been officially released, Funcinpec has lost three.
A gloomy Seak Chiv Leng, Funcinpec's third deputy governor and a leading campaigner,
feels the party has itself to blame.
"People in the town want to change the leader," he says. "They don't
see any progress with the old leaders. People voted for Funcinpec twice and have
not seen any changes."
Along with urban voters, the SRP found strong support among the youth. Bun Ang believes
young voters feel no allegiance to the CPP. Mao Monyvan, who was second on the SRP's
ticket in Kampong Cham, says the party got most of its votes from those in the 18
to 30 age bracket.
The key question for both the opposition and the CPP is whether the SRP's urban gains
and popularity with the young will translate into more votes in the next general
election, which will be held in 2008.
Tim Smyth, the managing director of Indochina Research, says the urban centers have
seen rapid growth over the past 18 months. He estimates the urban population has
increased from 17 to 18.5 percent in that time, and says only half of that increase
was seen in Phnom Penh. Other trading centers, including Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampong
Cham, Kampong Chhnang, and Sihanoukville, have also grown.
"The SRP always plays better in the urban centers than in rural centers,"
says Smyth, adding that the opposition's gains are not as a result of the move to
cities. "People are feeling freer to express their opinions."
And with more than 80 percent of the population living in rural areas, the opposition
knows it will need to improve its showing there next time. Mao Monyvan says the SRP
had limited success in rural areas despite campaigning hard.
"The SRP campaigned all around the country," he says. "But the thing
is that in the countryside, people get pressured by the authorities, and the political
atmosphere there is not good at all."