July 26, 2013

“D’oh ri min d’oh?” – “Change or no change” – that’s what thousands of teenagers are shouting across Phnom Penh during the last full day of campaigning for the fourth round of national elections, to be held on Sunday. The streets are impressively full of young people, riding in their thousands along the city’s boulevards, chanting and banging drums as they make a final push for votes for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). They’ve been invigorated by the arrival in the country of party head Sam Rainsy, who has spent the last few years in self-imposed exile to escape spurious legal charges. However last week Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a royal pardon for him, conferring a fig leaf of respectability on an electoral process that few believe will be free and fair.

Sam’s reappearance has reinvigorated the opposition; more than 100,000 people turned up at the airport to celebrate his arrival. Everyone I’ve talked to is happy to see him; my tuk-tuk drivers all flash CNRP badges at me when asked about their voting intentions. And yet Sam was widely seen as a nutjob by reporters on the paper, and he’s far too quick to play the vile anti-Vietnamese card to be taken entirely seriously.

Which is lucky for Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, but bad news for a country that desperately needs a decent opposition. In the end, Sam has precisely no chance of taking power from Hun Sen (he can’t even stand, having been stripped of his seat). Hun Sen is so relaxed he even gave up personally campaigning last week. However he has warned that civil war will erupt unless his party is re-elected and launched personal attacks on deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, accusing him of adultery and paedophilia, among other crimes, without actually presenting any evidence.

Two of Hun Sen’s sons, who are standing, have remained at the stump. His party, the CPP, has massive standing in rural areas, and will deliver the votes he needs with a comfortable majority. But in the cities, especially in Phnom Penh, things will be much tighter.

So far, the elections have been rather good fun; cheerful, good-natured, surprisingly free of violence. I was outside just now watching an encampment of several hundred CPP cadres dancing to Achey-Breaky Heart in the noonday heat.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts in an briefing paper that while Hun Sen will win overwhelmingly, his sons “would be wise to pay attention to the trajectory of South-East Asian politics. Strong arming, corruption, intimidation and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long,” the paper said.


One Response to “D’oh?”

  1. So what do you think Rupert? Will the Cambodians get the government they want or the one that they deserve? So hard to comprehend living in a country in which elections are ‘surprisingly free of violence,’ but then again also possibly to imagine them being fun! Enjoy =)

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