BATTAMBANG PROVINCE/BANTEAY MEANCHEY PROVINCE – As opposition leader Sam Rainsy addressed hundreds of supporters and residents of Serei Sorphoan City, his deputy Kem Sokha stood a few meters away, posing for photographs with giddy teenagers.
During the day’s keynote speech at the main roundabout in Battambang City, which drew some 10,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters, Mr. Sokha spoke for about five minutes before handing the microphone to Mr. Rainsy, who addressed the crowd for almost an hour.
It is a marked change from a week ago, when Mr. Sokha, the CNRP acting president prior to Mr. Rainsy’s return to the country on Friday, was at the center of the opposition campaign, touring the country and rousing sizeable crowds with his populist messages and pugnacious oration.
The decision to have Mr. Sokha accompany Mr. Rainsy during the final week of campaigning before Sunday’s national election, rather than extend the CNRP’s reach by having Mr. Sokha lead a separate campaign, was a necessary concession in order to show voters that the two men, once bitter rivals, are truly a united force, Mr. Sokha and other CNRP officials said.
“We want to show people we are together,” Mr. Sokha said on the sidelines of one of Mr. Rainsy’s speeches, surrounded by bodyguards and a group of teenage fans.
“The ruling party media says we are still fighting, so we want to make sure people know we are united. If we go to different places, people will say that ‘Kem Sokha said this here, but Sam Rainsy said this there.’ This way people see we are together,” Mr. Sokha said.
Just over one year ago, a long-awaited merger between Mr. Rainsy’s eponymous party and Mr. Sokha’s Human Rights Party was finalized during a meeting in Manila.
However, one of the CPP’s main tactics to discredit the opposition in the months leading up to the ballot has been to play up past animosities between the two men, who on the campaign trail prior to the 2008 election often attacked each other in a bid to gain more seats for their respective parties.
A series of audio segments released by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit in May, and broadcast by CPP-aligned media, spliced together a series of the potshots traded between Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy during that campaign.
The notion that Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy’s solidarity—depicted on posters and billboards across the country showing the two raising their hands in unison—is insincere, has been a mainstay of the CPP’s campaign.
Over the past month, Mr. Sokha’s brother, police Major General Kem Sokhon, who defected to the CPP in 2009, has been touring the country and appearing on TV telling voters that Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy are self-interested politicians only in it for personal gain.
As hundreds of CNRP faithful drove along the roads through Banteay Meanchey district yesterday, loudspeakers set up by the CPP were blaring a commentary asking passersby: “In the past, Sam Rainsy said Kem Sokha was a puppet of Hun Sen. So what does he say now?”
In the face of CPP efforts to create a perception of division and mistrust between the two opposition leaders, CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said it is essential that the party show coherence.
“We know that people are very concerned about unity within the party. That is why displaying them together during these last few days [of campaigning] is a very clear signal to the public that there isn’t a problem,” he said.
However, independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that the CNRP may have been better served sending Mr. Sokha on his own campaign tour to win over potential swing voters in the crucial final days of campaigning.
“They should split up the campaign and send Kem Sokha to more rural areas and let Rainsy exert his force on urban areas,” he said, adding that the attention to staging mass rallies in urban centers was probably misplaced.
“People at these rallies already support the party. With no access to TV or radio, it would make sense to…get Kem Sokha to rural areas, and perhaps convince new supporters,” he added.
But Kem Monovithya, the daughter of Mr. Sokha and a spokeswoman for the CNRP, said that this final week of campaigning symbolized the merger that laid the foundation for what seems to be increasing support of the country’s opposition party.
Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy are campaigning together “because that is what the people want to see. The party gained momentum because of the merger and unity, not because of Sam Rainsy or my father,” she said.