A Funcinpec supporter refreshes herself while campaigning in Sihanoukville on July 7.
The quarter of a million young Cambodians eligible to vote for the first time in the July 27 parliamentary election may prove to be more of a demographic phenomenon than a force for political change, say election analysts.
But Cambodians aged 18 to 30, whom the National Election Committee says make up 53.6 percent of all eligible voters, could emerge as a serious political force in future if governments do not address their concerns.
NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha predicts that the current demographic shift is unlikely to be reflected in the result of this month’s polls.
“Youths are likely to vote the same way as other people,” he said. “[And] not all youths who have registered in this election are expected to vote, although the NEC encourages them to do so.”
The NEC says 266,417 young people added their names to voter lists during a registration drive last September.
Polls conducted by the International Republican Institute during the 2007 commune council elections also discount the notion that young people have significantly different voting habits from the population at large.
“The difference between youth and the rest of Cambodians on party choice in the commune council elections was within the margin of error,” said John Willis, resident country director of the IRI, which surveyed 2,000 people throughout the country after the commune vote.
“I’m not sure that [youth] are likely to swing any particular way different to the population at large,” Willis said, referring to the July 27 vote.
“But I think that the next government will have more of a risk with young voters. Right now young voters seem pretty optimistic ... but we’ve seen from a lot of other countries that if that optimism is not justified, people will turn angry,” Willis added, citing drugs and unemployment as key issues.
As election day looms, major parties are confident of attracting the youth vote.
Sam Rainsy Party youth delegate Sann Seak Kin lamented the apathy of wealthy youth, but believes young victims of injustice will swell the SRP’s ranks as the election approaches.
“Some young Cambodians are not interested in politics, especially the rich,” he said.
“But those who are victims of land-grabbing, who are victims of unemployment, they want to join in with politics, especially with the opposition.”
The SRP has the country’s largest youth wing, boasting about 181,000 members, Seak Kin said, and is the only party to directly elect its youth leadership at an annual national congress.
“Most members of the youth movements in other parties are more than 30 years old,” Seak Kin said.
After the SRP youth division’s March 2 congress, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the party of “dragging in a youth movement to topple Hun Sen from his position” and urged voters to “fight back in the upcoming elections.”
Cheam Yeap, a member of the Cambodian People’s Party central standing committee, said the ruling party has made its own efforts to woo younger voters and is confident of blunting the opposition’s appeal.
“Young people will vote for the CPP because it is the party which freed their parents’ lives, freed the motherland and fixed everything that was destroyed during the Pol Pot regime,” he said.
Tia Then, leader of the Funcinpec youth movement, said he believes the royalist party is of continuing relevance to young Cambodians, and is hoping it will reinvigorate itself with an influx of youthful support.
“I have a strong belief that young people will vote for Funcinpec, especially after our internal reforms, which have brought youth into the party’s policies,” he said.
The party estimates that it has 8,000 supporters aged between 18 and 30.
Kuol Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, says long-term education may be the key to encouraging the involvement of young people in politics.
“The current youth are not ready for change,” Panha said. “But ... young people are progressive. They are thinking a lot about change. If they had more education about politics, youth could contribute to a lot of change.”