BATTAMBANG/BANTEAY MEANCHEY PROVINCES – The opposition CNRP’s campaign for the May 18 council elections rolled through these northwestern provinces Wednesday, with party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha casting aside their promises last week to refrain from attacks on the ruling CPP.
A growing cavalcade moved across Battambang province and through Banteay Meanchey province to the border city of Poipet unimpeded by authorities. But from the first address of the day, the opposition leaders took direct aim at Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party.
Speaking to about 250 party faithful at the opposition’s headquarters in Battambang City at 8:30 a.m., Mr. Sokha slammed Mr. Hun Sen for the lethal suppression of garment worker protests in January, in which military police armed with AK-47 assault rifles shot dead five strikers and injured dozens more.
“All the orders come from Hun Sen,” Mr. Sokha said. “All the people who have been shot, the orders come from Hun Sen. And if the Cambodian police did not follow his orders, he could just order the yuon to shoot the people,” he continued, using an often derogatory term for Vietnamese people.
A National Election Committee (NEC) edict for the two-week campaign for the May 18 district, municipal and provincial council elections states that parties cannot “insult directly, scorn or look down” on other campaigners and parties. It also says candidates should not raise “the shocking events of the past such as murders, beatings, violations or destruction of property of anyone or any group.”
In a press conference last Thursday, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha pledged to abide by the rules in order to be able to campaign, having previously said they would use the campaign to relaunch mass demonstrations against Mr. Hun Sen.
After leaving their provincial headquarters Wednesday, the pair used stump-stops at markets, villages and schools to rail against the prime minister and the CPP for failing to protect the nation’s forests, for allowing Vietnamese people to infiltrate Cambodia illegally, and for “stealing” the 2013 national election.
In Battambang City, the opposition motorcade of about 400 people was stopped by a police barricade about 100 meters from Monivong High School. Before taking a side street around the roadblock, Mr. Rainsy took the opportunity to address students who had crammed the balconies to see the procession.
“Children, you know that if your future is under the CPP, it is not good. You will finish school and then walk the streets kicking the air because there are no jobs,” he told the crowd, before the CNRP troupe set off for Banteay Meanchey.
Reached by telephone, Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the NEC, declined to say whether the CNRP was violating the ban on insulting campaigning, but said any party could file a complaint if they felt that they were being unduly criticized.
“Parties can criticize the ruling party if they think they do not do their job properly, but if any party curses the other party so strongly that a complaint is filed, then the NEC will become involved,” Mr. Nytha said.
“The one who curses hard will be reprimanded and have his name deleted or his party in that area will be deleted,” he added.
As the CNRP crossed into Banteay Meanchey province—with the rally peaking at more than 2,500 supporters in Poipet City—its officials continued to predict mass defections from the CPP when council votes are cast later this month.
CPP councilors currently hold the vast majority of commune council seats across the country. In Battambang, they occupy 641 out of 814 commune council seats. In Banteay Meanchey, they hold 405 out of 515 commune council spots.
Confident that all members will stick with the party, CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap said this week that his party will keep campaign activities to a minimum. But some in the CNRP say that some CPP officials have already agreed to defect.
“Many of the current CPP officials don’t even have enough money to eat, so they asked us what we will give them to vote CNRP,” said Pen Chhorn Saravoan, an opposition member who sits as deputy chief on the Battambang provincial council.
“We have said that after the council elections, we will organize for all the CPP members who change to our side to make sure they keep their old jobs.”