The campaign for the June 4 commune elections officially began on Saturday morning with opposition CNRP leader Kem Sokha telling supporters that his party’s time had finally come and CPP Senate President Say Chhum similarly pledging an easy victory for the ruling party.
With the swagger of rival prize fighters before a major fight, the two parties have spent much of the last four years claiming they alone enjoy the broad support of the people, and next month’s vote stands to be the only test of their claims before a national election in a year.
Neither party’s certainty about its impending victory wavered on Saturday, with Sokha opening his party’s rally in the city with the message that the united opposition had only grown stronger amid a seemingly organised campaign of government repression since the 2013 national election, which has included the jailing of lawmakers and dozens of activists.
“We have come across large obstacles and a high-tension situation, but we have seen that Cambodian people across the country have only continued to support us even more, and have encouraged us to reach victory and to rule,” Sokha said outside his party’s headquarters.
He said that his own refusal – unlike past opposition leaders – to flee the country when threatened with imprisonment by Prime Minister Hun Sen throughout last year showed that his party was different to past efforts to unseat the man who has ruled since 1985.
“Today, here, I still stand with my brothers and sisters even though there have been these obstacles of rain, thunder and lightning,” he said, referring to the recent knocks endured by the CNRP. “Do you believe it or not, brothers and sisters? Can the Cambodia National Rescue Party cross these huge obstacles?”
The crowd roared in the affirmative.
Across the city, it was a similarly confident message from Chhum, the Senate president and a recently named vice president of the Cambodian People’s Party, who opened the ruling party’s two-week campaign with a message not to underestimate the government.
“Our party will absolutely win because, firstly, we have the appropriate policies that completely meet the people’s wants and desires, and which suit the real situation of continuing development,” Chhum told supporters gathered on the city’s Koh Pich.
Chhum said that the CPP was at a distinct advantage over the CNRP when it came to the communes, being able to point both to the infrastructure the government has built over the years and also to superior local candidates who are well liked by their communities.
“Our party is the only party that has created achievements for the country in all sectors, and has selected [candidates] in a thorough and democratic way with capabilities and work experience that the local people love, believe in and support,” Chhum said.
The CPP has assigned different officials to lead its campaign efforts in each province including Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet, who is leading the charge in Kampong Cham.
Sokha, meanwhile, is aiming to visit each province with a CNRP convoy before June 4.
Yesterday, he visited Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville, where he appealed for people to vote for the party that puts the interests of “the weak and the poor” ahead of those of the wealthy. He is set to go to Koh Kong and Kampong Speu today before heading through Pursat to the northwest on Tuesday.
It could be an uphill battle. Some in the CNRP have played down the party’s chances next month compared to the national election, arguing the CPP’s patron-client networks will bolster its vote most in the communes, where voters rely on sitting officials for many services and may be reluctant to jettison ruling party incumbents.
The CNRP was formed as a united opposition a month after the 2012 commune elections, where its two constituent parties won only 30.7 percent of the vote to the CPP’s 61.8 percent. At the 2013 national election, the CNRP shocked many with 44.5 percent of the vote to the CPP’s 48.8 percent.
“The reality is that local conditions and systems really do favour the CPP,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.
“I think the CNRP will be lucky to get 40 percent of the vote,” Ear said. “And even if they do, they will not get 40 percent of the commune council seats. And for chiefs, forget it, even fewer. Pushing hard on the ground in local elections, without the wherewithal, is Sisyphean.”
Yet the stakes in an overall vote victory remain high for both parties, and a loss to the CPP would inevitably dampen the CNRP’s claims that it has been riding an ever-growing wave of support to “rescue” Cambodia from a widely despised authoritarian regime.
More people view the communes, rather than the national government, as the most important arm of the state in their lives, according to a 2014 Asia Foundation survey, and even in an outwardly repressive environment, the CNRP has had four years to prepare for the task.
Kem Monovithya, the opposition leader’s eldest daughter and the CNRP’s deputy head of public affairs, said the opposition remained confident that the growing dissatisfaction with the CPP’s years of rule would translate into winning votes next month.
“A CNRP majority vote on June 4 will translate into concrete changes that an ordinary Cambodian can personally feel at his/her own village,” Monovithya said. “No more abusive commune chiefs making people’s everyday life miserable. They will get fair, efficient services from their local government finally.”
“The CNRP’s 2017 gains will add to the momentum that will completely put us in an absolute majority at the national elections in 2018,” she said.
If the CNRP can, in fact, pull off the first victory over the CPP since the UN-organised 1993 elections, Hun Sen – whose longevity as a prime ministerial candidate has been reinforced by his image of electoral invincibility – may start to feel the earth move below him.
“This would be nothing short of a disaster for the CPP,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University who studies elections under authoritarian regimes. He said he believed any victory for the CNRP would leave the CPP few choices.
“The consequence would be an increase in repression sufficient to guarantee the ruling party a victory in the 2018 national election. More specifically, I would expect the government to dissolve the CNRP using the recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties.”
Yet Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the CPP, said the ruling party had no such concerns about a loss. “It is impossible,” he said.