CPP ‘Stronghold’ Hangs on By Slim Margin

prek russei commune, Kandal province – A week ago, the CPP commune chief here boldly predicted the party would win at least 70 percent of the vote.

He made his prediction in part through vigilant observation of party members who he claimed accounted for more than 80 percent of the registered voters here.

On Sunday, the voters spoke, and on Monday, the commune election officials tallied votes in a small, dingy schoolroom here. The re­sults were substantially different from what CPP had hoped.

Indeed, the CPP had won, but with only 38 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. Funcinpec grabbed nearly 27 percent, and the Sam Rainsy Party was a close third with 26 percent.

It was unclear Monday even­ing if the results were indicative of a larger trend nationwide. The CPP wasn’t likely to capture 73 of the National As­sembly’s 122 seats, as it had originally set out to do, but the party looked strong enough to muster a victory.

“We are leading,” Khieu Kan­harith, party spokesman, said late Monday evening. “I’m sure we can get more than 51 seats,” he added, the number the CPP won in the UN-sponsored 1993 elections.

Svay Sitha, a political adviser to the Council of Ministers, was more specific, declaring that the party would get at least 61 of the parliament seats.

Here, though, it appears that the CPP had overestimated its strength and underestimated the independence of the Cambodian voter.

Ing Kieth, Funcinpec steering committee member and deputy prime minister, said Funcinpec was ahead in Kandal province, based on his analysis of 50 percent of the ballots counted. Fun­cinpec had about 153,000, while the CPP had about 131,000 and Sam Rainsy approximately  20,000, he said.

But Ing Kieth also had concerns in Kandal’s S’aang district, where they had stopped counting ballots and moved them to the commune election commission.

“This is where we’ll have problems. The ballots are out of the boxes and are in plastic bags and we are concerned what can happen to them,” Ing Kieth said.

“In Kandal, like in Phnom Penh, Funcinpec started well in the morning and then in the afternoon the results started to go the other way…. I wonder why. We are suspicious.”

Many voters in Kandal pro­vince had hinted they wouldn’t follow the CPP last week when they said they didn’t feel in­debted to the party, despite taking gifts and money from the party. The Commit­tee for Free and Fair Elections had ranked this pro­vince among the highest in the country in intimidation, violence and attempted vote-buying.

On Monday, 40 election officials tallied the votes marked on the paper ballots stacked on school benches in front of them. Curious residents gathered outside, some peering in through the weathered wooden window shutters, just to verify the results for themselves.

“I want to make sure the counting is correct,” said Phan Pholly, as he sat outside on a bench with a view directly into the proceedings. When asked how he voted, he replied: “That is a secret.”

In neighboring Takdal commune, the results were similar. There, the CPP won 42 percent, Funcinpec nearly 28 percent and Sam Rainsy 22 percent.

While the CPP commune chief’s 70 percent prediction last week seemed wildly optimistic, it held a certain amount of logic. The commune is in a CPP stronghold, only minutes away from CPP Vice President and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Takhmau.

The CPP machinery here is well developed. Commune Chief Eng Thorn had described last week an elaborate strategy of grassroots organization, gift-giving and opposition surveillance.

So why did the CPP get less than a majority of the vote?

A couple of area voters indicated they were tired of intimidation and want leaders who will help Cambodia develop peacefully.

“The village chief stays to one side, so people cannot say anything,” complained 77-year-old Vath Sarin, as she sat in a restaurant across the road from the Takdal voting station.

Kim Sarin, a teen-ager, said she only hopes the new leadership after the elections will think “like the Cambodian people” and help develop the country.

(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd)

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