PREY VENG PROVINCE – As voters went to the polls in this mainly rural province Sunday, residents who favored change over continuity said they felt pressured to keep secret their views.
As of last night, preliminary results from Prey Veng, posted on the ruling party’s website, showed that out of the total 11 seats up for grabs the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 6 to the CPP’s 5. In 2008, the CPP took 7 seats.
This is what the CPP had most feared and the party had made efforts to impress the local population ahead of the vote.
In a move seen as amounting to buying the allegiance of voters, CPP Interior Minister Sar Kheng, a Prey Veng native, announced last week a $200,000 charitable “foundation” to help the needy in the event of a CPP victory.
On Sunday morning at a polling station in Preah Sdech district’s Lvea commune, the majority of voters interviewed expressed a desire for change, albeit in hushed tones.
Meas Saly, 46, looked around cagily as she spoke to reporters, whispering—to avoid the earshot of a nearby CPP activist—that she planned to vote against the ruling party.
“It’s about land,” she said, describing her own doomed court battle over a 1 hectare plot of farmland that she lost to a pawnbroker, who was able to pay a bribe to the court.
“I have no money to pursue the case, so they took my farmland,” she said.
“I hope voting can help us not have this kind of problem anymore. A lot of people here have problems like this.”
Kem Buny, 42, another CNRP supporter, said that although they were probably in the majority in the commune, those voting for the opposition in Lvea were afraid they might face problems in the event of an overall CPP victory.
“They are scared that in the future they might intimidate us,” he said.
“In the cities, there are a lot of people who like the CNRP and they can show it, they are not scared. But in the village, we’re still afraid.”
Speaking at his large villa in Peamro district, which doubles as a CPP headquarters, Cheam Yeap, a senior member of the CPP and an incumbent electoral candidate for Prey Veng, said there was nothing to fear for people voting for the opposition.
“This is the most fair campaign conditions for an election so far because we don’t have incidents, like people getting killed or violence. We only had verbal clashes, we can’t avoid that,” he said, assuring voters that there would be no discrimination if the CPP won.
“We won’t mistreat people after the election. It is their right to [vote for the opposition].”
Mr. Yeap said he was confident the CPP would match or improve upon its performance in 2008.
“We have 468,000 party members in this province,” Mr. Yeap said of Prey Veng, where 809,000 people were registered to vote.
A voter in Peamro’s Nak Loeung commune, Phan Chaab, 59, said he was a big fan of Mr. Yeap, and said he had never even heard of the most high profile CNRP candidate in the province, Nhem Ponhearith.
“[Mr. Yeap] helps build schools, pagodas and other things here. He helps the poor people,” he said.
But the small polling station in Neak Leung Health Center where Mr. Chaab voted went marginally in the opposition’s favor, with the CNRP gaining 189 votes to the CPP’s 183.
That result came with concerns, however. A large proportion of voters were using blue forms issued to those without identification, and many of those forms raised concerns from opposition monitors.
In one case, a woman was allowed to vote despite the photograph on her form being stuck over the top of an official stamp. In another, the name on one form did not match a name on the voter list, but the bearer was allowed to vote anyway.
“There’s only two of us [CNRP monitors],” said Run Osa, the CNRP’s 20-year-old monitor at the station, standing beside his 18-year-old colleague and indicating toward gathered election committee officials and CPP monitors.
“We can complain, but there’s a big group against us,” Mr. Osa said.
The reasons behind opposition supporters’ fears in Prey Veng were clear on Saturday night, when villagers in Sithor Kandal’s Prey Doeum Thnoeng commune reported that three or four groups of CPP officials, some accompanied by local election committee officials, were going door to door garnering votes.
Reporters and a local Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) volunteer attempting to verify the claims at about 9 p.m. were confronted by armed police, then by provincial, and commune election committee officials.
In a phone call, the district governor instructed Cambodia Daily reporters that they should not be in the area at night.
“You could be at risk. Decent people rarely walk out at night,” governor Pher In said.
“You should have contacted the authorities so they could guarantee your safety.”
Nuon Trino, Comfrel’s monitor in Sithor Kandal, said CPP and election committee officials had visited a number of villagers on the eve of the election.
“They try to find out who is going to vote for which party,” he said. “They have promised sarongs and $5 to give to people if they win the election.”
Prey Doeum Thnoeng was one of many in Prey Veng where the sums from last year’s commune elections indicated a shift in support to opposition parties.
“According to my own survey, most people here will vote for the new one [CNRP],” he said.
“People see their livelihoods getting worse and worse, and nothing changes. You might see the big houses and assume we are rich, but about 80 percent of people here are in debt. They invest in their farming but they can’t make money. Many young people are moving to Thailand.”
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