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Racial rhetoric marks campaigning

Racial rhetoric marks campaigning

Funcinpec's Prince Norodom Ranariddh, on the election trail on day one of campaigning.

F

UNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) escalated their political rhetoric, targeting

illegal immigration in an attempt to wrest control from Hun Sen's party with the

launch of the official election campaign on June 26.

That came as senior figures in the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) appeared

supremely confident of victory in the July 27 poll, and expected a massive slump

in support for its coalition partner, Funcinpec.

"Our target in each province is to take between 50 and 70 percent of the vote,"

said one senior CPP source.

In 1998, the CPP took 41 percent of the overall vote, with Funcinpec getting 32 percent

and the SRP 14 percent. But, the source said, the CPP now viewed the SRP as the real

opposition.

"At the beginning of the election campaign, we felt that Funcinpec would be

the second party, but the SRP has done a better job so far," he said. "It

is proving very difficult for Funcinpec to keep their supporters and, if they use

the King's popularity and still lose, it will be very bad for the monarchy."

Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh used his opening speech to tap nationalist

sentiment and distance the royalist party from its coalition partner on the issue

of illegal immigration.

Funcinpec officials accused the CPP of being controlled by Vietnam, and Ranariddh

vowed to create an immigration ministry to control the flow of illegal immigrants.

The rise in race-based rhetoric caused an alarmed National Election Committee (NEC)

to issue an appeal. NEC chairman Im Suosdey called on the parties to abide by their

pre-election commitments not to incite racial hatred or use the name and picture

of the King for electoral purposes. The appeal did not name any particular party.

Chea Vannath, the president of the Center for Social Development (CSD), said rhetoric

on illegal immigrants and border protection was likely to prove a vote-winner.

"This message is very appealing because people are affected by this," Vannath

said. And while she agreed the strategy was a dangerous one, she felt it was being

handled responsibly.

"It's easy to stir up [racial conflict] because of the mercurial nature of Cambodian

society. But this has been conducted in a professional manner. The speakers have

been professional and not emotional," she said.

But one political observer, who declined to be named, said Funcinpec's strategy was

looking increasingly desperate, and warned that ongoing tensions within the ruling

coalition could erupt into violence. He said Ranariddh's refusal to endorse a CPP

coalition was a desperate measure, and one that was raising ire within the ruling

party.

"I think Funcinpec are using this strategy as a last resort in attacking their

CPP partner directly," he said. "They hope to keep the balance of political

power within the coalition government after July."

The CPP's Hun Sen, on the election trail on day one of campaigning.

"As Hun Sen has confirmed already, he will not come out to campaign, and the

CPP's position is to not let any problems occur because we think the CPP will win

the election anyway," he said.

But the political observer warned that strategy might not hold until election day:

"If the CPP loses control and counter-attacks, it will lead to violence."

In the first days of the campaign, Funcinpec provoked a war of words by accusing

Hun Sen of awarding a controversial contract to renovate Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium

to a foreign firm. That claim drew a written rebuke from the Prime Minister, who

wrote a letter to King Norodom Sihanouk blaming Ranariddh for originally approving

the contract.

Despite this, Ranariddh has continued the theme in campaign speeches, and also threatened

to cancel the lucrative Angkor Wat concession held by the CPP- linked petrol company,

Sokimex.

CSD's Chea Vannath said she was less concerned about the conflict escalating into

violence, and believed Funcinpec's strategy would gather votes.

"It will help them a lot. It's better late than never," Vannath said of

the royalists new-found fire.

She noted that all parties were exhibiting a greater maturity than in the 1998 general

election or the 2002 local elections. She said they were working harder than ever

to differentiate their messages

"The SRP has stuck to the themes of corruption, immigration and border issues.

Funcinpec has concentrated on immigration and royalism-asking for the electorate

to 'give us one more chance to finish the job we started with the first mandate'.

The CPP has talked about economic growth, poverty reduction and the coming of peace

to Cambodia," she said.

She added that the relative calm of the campaign so far had amazed political parties,

NGOs and donors: "What has struck everybody is the new style of political debate.

People are amazed they are able to participate in the democratic process. This has

encouraged people to be more courageous."

Sam Rainsy of the SRP, on the election trail on day one of campaigning.

"I agreed with Sam Rainsy's idea that corruption makes people poorer. We have

to make it clear that we can enact and use the corruption law against high-ranking

officials," said Hokry who was himself accused of corruption by members of his

own party last year.

Rainsy kicked off his campaign with a rally in the center of Phnom Penh. More than

1,500 supporters in 75 trucks turned out to hear the opposition leader call on voters

to remove Hun Sen from power.

"Cambodia will develop as a modern country with full respect of human rights,

and the initiative to bring peace to the region as well as peace for the world, if

I become Prime Minister," said Rainsy.

The two coalition partners both emphasized their respective histories during the

campaign. The CPP arranged provincial 'January 7' ceremonies to remind voters of

their liberation from the Khmer Rouge on that day in 1979.

For its part, Funcinpec appealed to the nostalgia of the 1960s Sangkum Reastr Niyum

era, a period some view as a golden age.

Funcinpec has also tried to gain mileage from its ousting from government during

the fighting of July 1997. Funcinpec will use its annual remembrance ceremony to

rally its supporters for the election campaign.

Vannath believed the ongoing crisis within Funcinpec, which was riven by division

for much of last year and this, might actually help the party to win votes at the

election: "Funcinpec can attract the underdog vote, because people have pity

for the Prince because of his hardship."

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