With banners flapping and bullhorns blaring, political party activists hit Phnom Penh’s busy streets on June 26 to launch the official one-month campaign season before next month’s national election, Cambodia’s fourth since 1993’s UN-backed voting muted decades of open conflict.
Eleven parties are running in this election cycle – some more convincingly than others – but the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, with deep pockets and strong sway throughout government, is widely expected to strengthen its purchase on power in the July 27 polls.
Self-described “strongman” Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has sworn to maintain a lofty silence throughout the campaign period, delivered some parting shots to challengers earlier in the week warning the Sam Rainsy Party in particular not to employ “people power” to challenge the election results.
“The political party must not grab power through bloodshed,” said Hun Sen, whose own military loyalists ousted Prince Norodom Ranarridh from the premiership in a violent 1997 coup.
“Violence such as that after Kenya’s election, or in Zimbabwe, or the protests in Thailand, must not occur in Cambodia. We will not tolerate it,” the prime minister said.
Hun Sen also urged CPP members to remain calm during the campaign and to ignore insults from opposition activists. Furthermore, he promised a peaceful transfer of power in the unlikely event he is upset at the polls.
Rights groups and election observers already have voiced concern in recent weeks over perceived intimidation – in particular the arrest for defamation of a newspaper editor running on the Sam Rainsy Party ticket and the closure of a Kratie province radio station that was selling air time to opposition parties without government permission.
Mar Sophal, head of monitoring for the election watchdog Comfrel, said that the atmosphere is better than in previous elections, but threats and intimidation against activists continue at the grassroots level.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy went so far as to declare next month’s polls “meaningless,” following a request by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court that the National Assembly remove his parliamentary immunity so he can be prosecuted in a defamation case lodged by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
No sense of foreboding was detectable as party faithful took to the streets, however. The clamor, reckless driving and free lunches that come with democracy invigorated politicians and activists of all stripes.
Even Funcinpec, the CPP’s much diminished junior partner in the current coalition government whose former president Prince Norodom Ranariddh was drummed out and followed by many of his royal relatives, claimed a fighting chance in the coming polls.
“People had no faith in Funcinpec when it was led by Prince Ranariddh,” current President Keo Puth Rasmey said of his brother-in-law.
“A lot of people know me and my wife, who is standing as candidate for prime minister.”
His wife – Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey, daughter of former King Norodom Sihanouk – is an apparent lure for the retired monarch’s many loyalists.
Also vying for the mantle of “royalist party” is the Norodom Ranariddh Party, whose founder and figurehead remains in exile and faces jail time for fraud here in Cambodia.
The NRP’s local management has held up the convicted prince’s absence as evidence the elections will not be “free nor fair.”
But one NRP supporter, who declined to identify himself, joined the campaign convoy undaunted.
“I just came for pleasure. I always join a different party before each election. It doesn’t matter if it’s the SRP, NRP or HRP, but I never participate with the CPP,” he said.
As for the HRP, the Human Rights Party of former Funcinpec parliamentarian Kem Sokha, about 1,500 of its activists boarded vans and motorbikes to cruise the capital.
Supporter Pon Tov, 38, said his political choice was a matter of principal.
The HRP “always helps the poor people and the weaker people,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the Human Rights Party will win 100 percent, but I hope we will have some seats in the National Assembly, and we will try our best to win afterward.”
Meanwhile, thousands of enthusiastic activists crowded into CPP headquarters, where the party’s 57th anniversary had been bumped up to coincide with the campaign launch. They shouted and applauded for CPP President Chea Sim, who took center stage to proclaim party achievements.
Hun Sen sat in the rear, adhering to his vow.