Jubilant cheers resounded at the Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters in Kampong Cham last night as the party transformed its solid support base in the province into an undeniable stronghold.
The opposition party declared victory in the province as night fell, with unverified preliminary results – released by government-aligned media outlet Fresh News – showing it having won a decisive 76 communes out of 109 in yesterday’s local elections.
That outstripped their 2012 performance, before the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party united to become the CNRP, and before part of the province was carved off to form Tbong Khmum province.
In that contest, the SRP and HRP collectively gathered just 12 commune chief spots to the ruling party’s 161, but as a united front in the 2013 national poll, the opposition scraped together a majority win in Kampong Cham.
As the home province of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the constituency of CNRP President Kem Sokha, Kampong Cham carries political heft.
Hak Chanthan, 57, said he was thrilled to be elected commune chief for Ampil commune in Kampong Siem district.
“We are very excited. We feel like we have big muscles,” he said. “It is an absolute win. The CPP will continue to obstruct us, but we will work hard.”
He said he looked forward to bringing the commune three key things: paved roads, canals and better healthcare, but that the CNRP would need to secure victory in the crucial 2018 poll to deliver its promised – and ambitious – $500,000 in funding for every commune in the country, a central CNRP campaign pledge.
Indeed, opposition lawmaker Chanrath Ou, who celebrated with supporters as they scrutinised the results, declared: “We see the result of the national election already.”
“I think we are the champions for the whole country and we will continue to declare victory in 2018,” he said.
But earlier yesterday, in the district’s Koh Mitt commune, a pair of nonagenarians was nervously hoping for a different result in a Cambodian People’s Party stalwart commune.
“We are praying to Buddha to win,” said Srun Khun, a long-time CPP supporter.
“The CPP has done almost everything – schools, water, electricity, roads. The CNRP has done nothing.”
Early estimates yesterday suggested the CPP had managed to edge ahead in Koh Mitt, albeit by a much smaller margin than its 2012 blowout, but the close count came as a shock to Khun.
“I almost vomited blood. It’s a very bad taste – like not really delicious rice,” he said.
For CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, it was a blow, but not a resounding loss.
“They still haven’t grabbed the belt yet,” he said, referring to a boxer’s victory prize, adding the CNRP still had a long way to catch up, with the same preliminary results showing the CPP taking a total 1,163 communes nationwide to the CNRP’s 482.
“This is the will of the people [in Kampong Cham]. In Tbong Khmum, we still keep our belt,” he said.
“We are just losing a few battlefields. We are not losing the whole war.”
According to the National Election Committee, the voter turnout for Kampong Cham was 89.55 percent yesterday, a sharp increase from the 62 percent of eligible voters who cast their ballot in 2012, according to election watchdog Comfrel.
One of the more high profile communes, due to the imprisonment of its opposition commune chief Seang Chet, was yesterday claimed by his wife, Sreng Sokhoeun.
Chet was in pre-trial detention for almost nine months after being swept up in an investigation into an alleged affair of party leader Kem Sokha, and was unable to enrol to vote or stand as a candidate. Because of this, his wife ran instead.
Ahead of final results in her home yesterday, Sokhoeun was optimistic.
“I am not nervous. I think I will win 90 percent,” she said.
Chet, holding court as Sokhoeun hovered at his shoulder, issued a heart-felt thanks to his fellow prisoners – among them four Adhoc human rights defenders and one NEC official, who were implicated in the same scandal – for their support.
Former teacher Lou Chhoeun, 73, said life was difficult for people in the commune, who battled low cassava prices and meagre salaries for civil servants.
“They do not care about the current civil society. I taught for 30 years and then retired, with just a small amount of money – 10,000 riel a day. It is not enough for me, so how can I also give to my family?” he said.
He said small increases in salaries – a promise made by Hun Sen – were driven by a need for votes.
As they ate lunch near the commune’s large pagoda, Pon Vann, 70, and Sok Sun, 67, showed off their ink-stained fingertips. They remain loyal to the CPP – due to their “liberation of the country” in 1979 – but they want to see some changes, too.
“We do not hate the Prime Minister, but his lower authorities have many houses, where the poor get poorer and poorer . . . It’s a system of deforestation and destruction of fisheries,” Vann said.
“There are problems, that’s why people do not vote for the CPP. They are losing support – especially because of nepotism and corruption,” Sun said.
He also mentioned the low price of rice for farmers.
“When the people cannot do business well, they immigrate to Thailand or Korea,” he said.
Such weighty concerns didn’t dent the enthusiasm of Kampong Cham’s youth, who were eager to cast their votes for the first time yesterday.
At polling stations in two communes that returned low youth voter rates in 2012 – Kampong Cham and Veal Vong – almost all said they were “happy to fulfil their civic duty”.
Sam Virak, 21, felt empowered to vote for his preferred party and said the vast majority of his peers would be voting too, while his friend Chab Sereyodom, 22, said only a few young people he knew were not voting – due to losing their ID card or having to travel a long distance from their work.
Kim Karina, 22, said students had more understanding and more political know-how than in the past.
“After we see the society, we want to participate,” she said.