Fear created by the possibility of a military conflict with Thailand over the border dispute at Preah Vihear temple could have a significant bearing on both the turnout and the choice made by voters at this weekend’s National Assembly elections, election analysts and monitors warned Thursday.
Mar Sophal, monitoring chief for Committee for Free and Fair Elections, called on the government, King Norodom Sihamoni and the National Election Committee to make a joint statement reassuring people that the border situation would be resolved peacefully in order to turn people’s attention fully to the election.
“[The crisis] has made people fearful,” he said Thursday. “We are concerned that the present situation might affect voter turnout across the country.”
While a number of people interviewed on the streets of Phnom Penh on Thursday suggested that the CPP stood to get a boost from the situation, election analysts differed on which party, if any, would benefit from it.
According to Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, the CPP stood to gain the most from the dispute, as people considered them to be the main military force.
“People forget about the land-grabbing, the drug running, the human trafficking and focus on Preah Vihear,” she said. “Politicians are the only ones talking about the election at the moment.”
According to political observer Chea Vannath, however, the inflamed nationalist sentiment generated by the events of the past fortnight would not affect who people voted for.
“Prior to the 2003 election, we had the anti-Thai riots, which had a similar impact here and people still voted along party lines,” she said.
Independent media analyst Moeun Chhean Nariddh said the border standoff was a major distraction for the voters.
“All newspapers are devoting large amounts of space to it,” he said. “There is less about the policies of each party, with the result that the voters will be making a less informed decision.”
However, party officials on both sides spoken to Thursday seemed reluctant to claim the issue as being of any particular advantage to them.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the CPP would not gain from the Preah Vihear situation specifically, as it had already won over the majority of voters However, he claimed that the CPP is best equipped should a war break out as the SRP is lacking in military know-how. “I have been shot, as well as hit by a bomb and a grenade,” he said. “I know how much that hurts.”
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua did not expect the escalating situation on the border to boost the CPP vote, as the electorate had more pressing issues on their minds. “If people have no food on the table, they will not be thinking about Preah Vihear,” she said, adding that the SRP would not be using the issue while campaigning.
“I don’t think it’s wise for the SRP to jump into this…because the party does not have the media access to make it a viable issue against the ruling party,” she said. “You can’t change an electorate like Cambodia’s in three days.”
However, a number of people around Phnom Penh spoken to Thursday morning said the standoff at Preah Vihear would affect voters’ decision-making.
Lang Cham, 20, a monk at Wat Ounalom pagoda thought that as war was looming, people would turn to what they knew best.
“This problem is definitely overshadowing the election,” he said. “I do believe it will affect people’s minds when they vote, and the CPP will benefit.”
Motorcycle taxi driver Marath Sem, 53, also said he believed the CPP would get a boost in their vote but added that the approach to the dispute should transcend party differences.
“The issue is a national one and affects everyone, so there should be unity from all the parties on the best way forward,” he said.
Kim Bunrith, 52, said the CPP is regarded as being stronger on security because the former Khmer Rouge military that had defected is loyal to them.
“The CPP will protect the land from outside attack,” he said.
Suon Sivath, 24, was pessimistic about the outcome of any hostilities with Thailand.
“Whoever is elected on Sunday, it will mean nothing if there is no country to govern in a few months,” he said.
Defense Ministry Secretary of State Neang Phat said the estimated thousands of Cambodian soldiers being mobilized along the border with Thailand would be able to vote Sunday, but he did not elaborate.
“We will facilitate this,” he said.