“My truck is a wreck,” Mu Sochua, head of Cambodia National Rescue Party public affairs, warns as she climbs on board and gets into position for her last campaign rally of the election season.
After a month of tireless campaigning, a good deal of which she has spent perched precariously on a wooden stand at the back of this vehicle, it’s no surprise that both Sochua and her car are a little beat up.
“I’ve got a hand infection from holding onto this [rusted] railing.… I’ve got an eye infection too,” she says.
Such trivialities, however, do not seem to faze the 59-year-old MP and human rights advocate. Sochua is leading the CNRP’s campaign for Battambang province — home to Cambodia’s second-largest city and known as the ‘rice bowl’ of the Kingdom. Despite this being where she first won a National Assembly seat back in 1998 with the Funcinpec royalists, it won’t be an easy fight.
The Cambodian People’s Party, led here by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, hold six of eight seats available in the province.
Sar Kheng, whose name is emblazoned on public infrastructure projects across the city and is a longstanding ruling-party candidate in the province, is said to be an influential figure in Battambang that will be hard to defeat.
Observers say, however, that the lack of media access in Battambang could play just as large a role in hampering the opposition’s bid to make significant inroads. The inability of migrant workers that have crossed the border into Thailand to return home to vote has also been fingered as an issue in the province.
“We are aiming for four seats. We will get three for sure, three is a given. But four will be a battle,” Sochua says, ducking under an overhanging tree branch between words.
Some analysts, however, have pointed out that winning even an extra seat in Battambang (the former Sam Rainsy Party won two seats here in 2008) could be tough for the CNRP.
In the CPP’s fortress-like headquarters near the centre of town — a stark contrast from the CNRP’s base in a rundown house on the outskirts of the city — Uk Vong, deputy chief of the party’s provincial council, said he had no doubt the party would retain its six seats.
“People will not change, because they are afraid of returning to war like in the Lon Nol and Pol Pot era. They happily believe in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership,” he told the Post.
Still, support in Battambang town, where a few thousand young supporters yesterday joined Sochua’s final convoy through the bumpy dirt paths and backstreets, could make some difference.
Despite being the female face of the opposition and a key CNRP figure, however, Sochua does not have the populist clout of party leaders Kem Sokha or Sam Rainsy.
As she freely admits, it is the CNRP’s 25-strong youth leadership committee that have organised and drummed up support for the party’s Battambang rallies, including raising money from individuals to add to the $90,000 provincial war chest.
At a youth concert to end the campaign on Friday, between massive sing-a-longs, party supporters would traipse through the crowd and hand over small amounts of money to the hosts on stage.
Their names and donation amounts — often between $1 and $3 — would then be read out to rapturous applause.
“They are amazing.… You have a young guy coming up to us at the rally. He says he earned $1.50 today … and he says, here. Take it. It’s for [the party].”
Given that the Battambang race has been characterised as a face-off between Sochua and Sar Kheng, it’s surprising that around town, many have not heard of either leader.
Suon Chamroeun, 33, the CNRP’s number six candidate for the province, explains: “It’s not according to the candidate, it’s according to party policy. Both the youth and elders they need change. They don’t care about the candidate,” he says. “The rallies are like a magnet.… The youth just join.”
Tony Visal, a 25-year-old restaurant owner who supports the CNRP because of its strong stance on corruption, says his parents’ fears of opposition politics are symptomatic of a generational divide in Battambang.
“My parents, they think about January 7, 1979 [when the Vietnamese invaded and ended the Khmer Rouge regime]. It is hard to change their minds,” he says. “More people are worried about civil war coming again. It’s a common fear … and when they hear that, they put faith in our current leaders and stability.”
Ny Sreymom, 24, a young CPP supporter, may prove that despite Sochua’s efforts, the long-term visibility of the ruling party is likely to trump the opposition’s youth card in Battambang.
“I am not sure about [who] the candidates [are]. But some 80 percent of my village and myself support the CPP because the party has developed everywhere,” she said.
That reasoning could explain the sentiments of a tired-looking Sochua as she took to the stage at the youth concert for her final speech of the campaign.
“It’s not over yet. It’s only over when we are sitting in our National Assembly seats."