Prime Minister Hun Sen warned thousands of villagers yesterday that his most popular initiatives, including his far-reaching land-titling scheme, will simply disappear if he is not re-elected in July’s national election – amid suggestions his campaigning has unofficially begun.
In a marked shift from his apparent generosity of last week, which included returning land to evictees in Preah Sihanouk province and adding $2 to a monthly garment wage increase, the prime minister used a ground-breaking ceremony for a bridge to predicted regression should the CPP fall from power.
“You come to Hun Sen for help with problems relating to markets, bridges [and] roads,” he said during a speech to about 10,000 villagers in Kandal province’s Koh Thum district. “But when July comes, you must help me, just once. I ask for only one vote each.”
The prime minister’s rhetoric – although contradictory – is nothing out of the ordinary, according to government spokesman Phay Siphan, who noted that Hun Sen makes headlines all year round.
Independent analysts and the opposition, however, see Hun Sen’s latest political twisting and turning as signs his election campaign has already begun, albeit unofficially.
“You would call it electioneering – reduce resentment and anger to get [voter] support,” independent analyst Lao Mong Hay said, referring to Hun Sen’s gestures of last week. “He has done this in the past. Politicians like to show the public they care.”
As well as intervening in the wage issue and overturning a sub-decree that wrested land in Preah Sihanouk back from tycoon Cheam Phen – sparing 49 families from permanent relocation – Hun Sen also publicly declared last week he had sacked Yean Sina, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, over his alleged part in the beating of 10 journalists.
Koul Panha, executive director of election-monitoring NGO Comfrel, did not consider Sina’s sacking a strategic move to sway voters, but believed Hun Sen’s land and wage moves were.
“I think with the minimum wage, it’s an election motivator, and also the land [issue],” he said.
“Starting January, things have been a little more intensified. During this time, [the government] has focused more on economic issues. Minimum wage is a core issue too... but not education and health.”
In coming months, Panha said, corruption will be an issue that will likely shape campaigning, and Hun Sen can be expected to generate televised messages aimed at young voters.
“This time, they will target youth,” he said. “They will look at the first-time voters. But the CPP will focus on entertaining voters, not on policy. They’ll use singers and comedians. The opposition will focus on education.”
With regards to the land issue, Nicolas Agostini, a legal adviser focusing on land rights at Adhoc, said any steps Hun Sen has taken in the lead-up to July’s election – dating back to last year’s decision to deploy student volunteers to fast-track his national land-titling scheme – should not be seen as a policy shift.
“With land, they did enhance land-title security through the new scheme in non-disputed areas... but they are not the people and communities who are most in need. On one side, you see the prime minister getting benefits from these [announcements], but the real problems are not addressed.”
The deployment of youth volunteers had been “outside legal framework”, Agostini added, and steps need to be taken to tackle problems faced by indigenous communities seeking communal titles, farmers in disputed areas and villagers in informal urban settlements.
During his speech yesterday, Hun Sen said he still believed the CPP has the ability to retain at least two-thirds of the country’s National Assembly seats.
As it stands, the CPP holds 90 of 123 seats, or 73 per cent.
Hun Sen’s claim that certain major projects could be in jeopardy if the CPP loses does hold some weight, with CPP-affiliated tycoons frequently funding what should be public development works. But political analysts have suggested the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party could chip away at the CPP’s hold on the National Assembly regardless of such threats.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay believes the CPP is already feeling pressure from the CNRP, prompting Hun Sen to begin electioneering months out from the national ballot.
“During the 2008 election, he went to Sihanoukville and gave some land back – five years later, he’s doing the same thing. He gives the land back, he speaks ill of officials.”
Unlike Panha, Chhay considers the sacking of Sina to be significant in its timing.
“Normally, these are people outside his circle, like [Sina], who was from Funcinpec. [Hun Sen] can use it as an example and display it to the public. It’s not a new thing, but this time it’s more serious than ever before.”
The reason for this, Chhay believes, is because more voters are becoming dissatisfied with the CPP and willing to speak up about it, including through public protest.
“I’m surprised. It’s quite early. But from my own observations, every time there is an election coming, there will be some reverse behaviour from [Hun Sen] towards the abuse of his people,” he said.
But though it may appear otherwise, Siphan, from the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said nothing Hun Sen or the government had done thus far constituted campaigning.
“The activity of the prime minister makes the front page every week of every year,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it is part of an election campaign. Thirty days before the election, that’s when we’ll start. That’s the law.”
That’s a sentiment that suited Mong Hay, who said any political matter prior to the end of June should be discussed – for as long as politicians want – in the confines of the National Assembly.
“At the end of June, OK, that’s the election campaign. You can talk to people all you want then. But until then, leave people in peace. Go to the parliament and have a forum there,” he said.