Democracy Means Business for Sign Painters

As the commune elections draw near, artists have become busier—but are making money —painting party sign boards and logos.

“Usually, when the elections are coming near, the political parties make new party sign boards,” said Van Seka, an artist-owner of Kok Pich (Diamond Crane) Art in Phnom Penh.

Van Seka’s shop has seven workers. To make a sign, three of the workers hold the party’s cut-out pattern over the sign, and one artist sprays paint. They spray the letters first, with white paint, and after 20 minutes take the pattern off the sign. They let the letters dry for an hour. The next day, they make the party logos.

It’s a delicate operation.

“We use different colors of the party in order to meet their standards. We have to be careful. If we damage the sign by mistake, we will have to buy a new board to replace it,” Van Seka said, as a crew stenciled in letters for a blue, white, red and gold CPP sign.

Van Seka’s signs vary in size from 0.9 meters-by-3.5 meters at the smallest end to 1.5 meters-by- 5 meters at the largest end.

And business is going well, Van Seka added.

“The CPP ordered me to make 500 pieces for Kampot province,” he said.

But it’s not only the artists who stand to make money from the election signs. Someone has to make the boards, then install finished signs, as well.

If the signs are expensive, party officials say they are worth it. Already, parties have been scrambling to put up their signs around the country.

The Sam Rainsy Party already has signs in 1,095 of Cambodia’s 1,621 communes, party Secre­tary-General Eng Chhay Eang said. Funcinpec has gone even further, with signs in 1,600 communes, party spokesman Serey Kosal said.

The signs are not just advertising for a party to attract undecided voters, though; sometimes they provide an aid and comfort to party loyalists in turbulent communes, Serey Kosal said.

“Now, we are beginning to raise the signs in the villages. This will strengthen our members’ spirits so that they will not feel worried about their security,” he said.

This election season has al­ready seen at least three shootings of commune election candidates, two of them fatal. A Sam Rainsy party activist was gunned down in Kompong Speu pro­vince, while a Funcinpec candidate was shot dead outside his Kompong Chhnang province home just a week later. Another Funcinpec activist was wounded when someone shot him under his arm near his Pursat province home.

For Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, the signs go beyond their immediate political meaning; they also symbolize each party’s hopes of becoming larger players in Cambodian politics, party officials said.

Funcinpec was pushed out of the country’s politics after the 1997 factional fighting and could not organize an election push until just six months before the 1998 provincial elections, Serey Kosal said.

“In 1998, we did not even have time for campaigning, let alone raising party signs,” Serey Kosal said.

The same was true for the Sam Rainsy Party, Eng Chhay Eang said.

“In the 1998 elections, we had only 670 signs,” he said.

This time, things are different, each party official said.

“Now the situation is better than before. We have some party officials who are the governor or deputy governors of their prov­inces. It is easy for us, as they help with our jobs by installing the signs,” Serey Kosal said.

The Sam Rainsy Party is also sanguine about its signs.

“In the 1998 elections, we had only 670 signs. In Prey Veng, for example, we had only 16 signs. But now we have 100 signs there,” Eng Chhay Eang said.

Another improvement is the savings on putting signs on people’s property, Eng Chhay Eang said.

“We used to have to pay 30,000 riel to put one sign up. Now, the people give the locations to us freely,” he said.

Funcinpec has no such luck saving money. The party completely redesigned its ap­proach, changing the color of lettering, “so we have to make all new ones,” Serey Kosal said.

Depending on not only the size of the board but the size and complexity of the party logo, signs cost Funcinpec anywhere from $24 to $150 each, Serey Kosal said.

Which is good news for Van Seka. Last year, he made 3,000 Funcinpec signs, he said.

The ruling CPP, of course, is not left out of the sign business, with professional and efficient crews fanning out into the countryside, CPP Deputy Cabi­net Chief Mam Sarin said.

“We have groups working from provinces to villages. They know when and how to install, to take care and do the maintenance on the signs,” Mam Sarin said.

Each party has its own particular standards for artists to make, Van Seka said. And, the artist added, they are built to last.

“They [the CPP] said they will keep the signs for the communal elections, and the general elections in 2003,” Van Seka said.

Election season is a boon to his business, with his income in­creasing by up to two-thirds, he added.

And if it is true that people vote with their pocketbooks, it should be easy to see where Van Seka’s sympathies lie.

“Funcinpec signs are more ex­pensive than CPP signs, be­cause it has the picture of the Prince [Norodom Ranariddh] so we need to scan it,” he said. “We can not draw it. For the CPP logo, I have the printers make it. The least ex­pensive is Sam Rainsy Party logo, because it has only one candle.”


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