Big Surprise Or Business as Usual?

Drizzling rain, persistent for several days due to a typhoon in the South China Sea, dampened the last days of the 2003 election campaign as it ground to a close with large rallies in Phnom Penh on Friday.

It was a damp and dull end to the month of campaigning where the ruling CPP, Fun­cinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party—along with 20 smaller parties—offered a mixed bag of promises, gifts and threats to the nation’s 6.3 million eligible voters.

Based on experiences from two previous parliamentary ballots in 1993 and 1998, some had expected political violence to again mar this year’s election.

But predictions of election turmoil and strife proved false by Friday, and observers, diplomats and international media were already calling the 2003 election the most peaceful, saying Prime Minister Hun Sen was the clear favorite to win.

There are whispers that the success of the election and Hun Sen’s likely shot at prime minister for another five years will win him increased international credibility.

“If Hun Sen gets a good vote he will be respected and [his leadership] undisputed. All the parties have had time to think and muster their resources to fight it out. If they lose against the CPP after doing all that, what does it say?” one diplomat said.

Intimidation and vote-buying were still a problem, but, all in all, Cambodia had organized “relatively fair democratic elections,” the diplomat added.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections and the Neutral, Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections reported on Friday that since the start of the year, 31 supporters from the three main parties have been killed, though political motives have yet to be established.

It’s a figure lower than previous election years.

One Western diplomat said that probably the most significant aspect of election news, and still the least reported, was the relative lack of violence.

However, villagers and election observers report that while violence is less, more subtle forms of threats and intimidation have been employed to influence voter decisions.

Balanced media coverage, while better than any other elections due to a UN-sponsored equity project, was still weighted toward the CPP, which dominated the nation’s private television airwaves and the most popular broadsheet newspapers.

TV viewers last week were treated to coverage of Prime Minister Hun Sen visiting rice fields and long set-piece statements by CPP ministers denying the ruling party was soft on, or guilty of, corruption, illegal immigration, illegal logging, tackling poverty or selling state assets.

At one point on Wednesday night, viewers had a choice of pro-CPP content on CTN, Bayon TV, Apsara TV and TV 3—or karaoke on the remaining local channels.

These programs focusing on the ruling party’s piety and political acumen followed a weeklong barrage of documentaries and films on the Khmer Rouge regime broadcast on Bayon and Apsara TV stations.

Staff at the stations said the Khmer Rouge retrospective was to remind people of the country’s terrible past because some political parties were campaigning on a platform that encouraged Cambodians to look to the future.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, and her work with the Cambodian Red Cross was also featured last week.

In one fictional show on Wednesday night, the characters featured were two corrupt couples—apparently symbolic of the opposition and royalist parties—and a kind, pro-CPP village chief and his helpful and honest wife, who worked for the Cambodian Red Cross.

There may have been less violence and a more balanced media, but the relative nature of what constitutes a “free and fair” election in Cambodia, though satisfying those who point to the slow development of democracy in the West, will likely leave the poll open to dispute by the losers.

Diplomats and election observers, mindful of the CPP’s unwillingness to concede loss in the 1993 election and the mass protests after the CPP’s victory in 1998, fear that it will be after the results are announced that trouble could erupt.

“Everyone will dispute the result if it is not favorable. They will dispute it, not only the opposition party, but the ruling party are going to dispute if it doesn’t go in their favor,” an Asian diplomat said.

Western diplomats were also predicting a Hun Sen win, believing the only question to be answered now is who will take second place: Funcinpec or the Sam Rainsy Party.

The election atmosphere was good, not only compared with the country’s last general election in 1998, but also with last year’s commune council elections, said Japanese Ambassador Gotaro Ogawa.

The ambassador visited a number of provinces to gauge the election situation.

“Hun Sen appealed himself to the people to have a fair, free and nonviolent election…Last year’s commune election was already a very big improvement. Maybe the people have more experience and feel they can express themselves freely,” Ogawa said.

Ogawa would not be drawn on who he thought would win the election, but said a credible election was very important for the international community and the future of donor funding to Cambodia.

“I hope there will not be much contesting of the result,” he said, adding that the NEC rules and regulations were very clear and vote-counting mechanisms had improved.

“In each station there are observers. It seems to me it is very difficult to cheat on the votes,” he said.

However on the last day of the campaign, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said it was “ridiculous” that people could already be calling the election a success.

“There will be protests [after the results are known]. No doubt about it,” Son Chhay said. Protests will take place even if the opposition wins, he said.

“If the CPP loses the election they have already organized NGOs and the Pagoda Boys to protest,” he said, referring to the pro-Hun Sen youth league that stages abrasive counter-demonstrations.

Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara said that if the counting process is conducted properly, the royalist party will win the election.

An estimated 20,000 Funcinpec supporters marched through Phnom Penh on Friday in a display of “people power” that showed the CPP it was time to leave and make room for a new democratic government, the princess said.

“I don’t know what will happen [after the election]. But I hope the CPP will be fair and respect the people’s decision,” she said.

On Friday, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he was only really concerned with the size of his party’s victory.

The election was more peaceful than other years and though some complaints will emerge after the results are known, there are no grounds for the mass protests that erupted in 1998, he said.

With 30,000 local and 1,000 foreign observers ensuring the election’s validity, unfounded disputes or protests will be dealt with swiftly, he said.

“The most important thing is how much [the CPP wins]. The more votes the better,” Khieu Kanharith said.

 

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