Lacking the funds and expansive network of volunteers the ruling CPP has behind its well-oiled election campaign, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is turning to a resource it now boasts in increasingly large numbers: young women.
On Thursday, as the CNRP ramped up preparations for July’s national election, young volunteers flocked to the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. Among them were fashionable women who were frantically assembling party-branded flags.
As they sat hard at work, a party member took photographs of them and before long had posted a collage of images to a popular CNRP-affiliated Facebook page.
“We are women ready for the rescue of the Khmer nation this July 28, 2013. And you, are you ready for the nation’s rescue yet?” read a message alongside the image, which showed young women clad in CNRP clothing and memorabilia.
The photo, which carried the caption, “It is known that the young National Rescue girls are beautiful and gentle when you meet them,” has received more than 700 “likes” on Facebook and has been shared more than 135 times on the social networking site.
With elections now just over a month away, the CNRP is hoping to gain some leverage from integrating young, smart—and attractive—women into its campaign. In a country where more than half the population is below the age of 30, the CNRP is also trying to compete with the ruling party’s own hugely successful youth movement.
CNRP Phnom Penh campaign director Ly Sovichea, who posted the images of the CNRP’s latest female recruits last week, said since the post went online the party had drawn a substantial number of new recruits to its campaign.
“A beautiful woman, she always has a lot of friends—especially boys—studying with her. And I told them: ‘You have to bring your friends to come to join us, okay?” said Mr. Sovichea, adding that since his post went up on Thursday the party had seen roughly 200 young male members join the party as volunteers.
In a country where more than half the population is below the age of 30, the CNRP is also trying to compete with the ruling party’s own hugely successful youth movement.
On Saturday, the CNRP’s headquarters was a site of industriousness, with young men hard at work cutting and stripping bamboo poles in the building’s basement, while upstairs, groups of professionally-dressed young men and women painstakingly nailed policy posters to the bamboo.
The volunteers stopped only to smack each other playfully with the campaign materials, collect drink orders delivered from a nearby restaurant, and pose as Mr. Sovichea took more photos with his smartphone.
While attracting more men to the cause is one benefit of promoting young, female party members, CNRP candidate Mu Sochua, who was Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs between 1998 and 2004, said such campaigning was also part of an effort to empower young women throughout the country.
“Usually it takes a lot more for women to come out and campaign, so when the men see them engaged, they…come out too,” she said. “Usually, it is the other way around,” with men driving election campaigns, “but now with social media, women can come out without being afraid.”
Ms. Sochua also noted the opposition’s work during last year’s commune elections, when the opposition SRP attempted to mobilize more young people in its campaign and saw an unprecedented increase in young women coming to join the party.
“Young women, when they campaign, she will take the party’s message serious…. She will work 10 to 12 hours a day,” Ms. Sochua said.
In one of the photos posted online is 18-year-old high school student Thy Sovantha.
She said that she was more than happy to be photographed campaigning if it meant she was helping attract new members to the party.
“Sometimes they post my photograph on Facebook, and then more people come because they see that I am not afraid,” Ms. Sovantha said Friday. “They see I am only a high school student, but even I am not afraid.”
“I think they see that I am young, and I am brave to come here to help, so they have to take their time and show that they are brave,” she added.
Kim Sophea, secretary of the CNRP’s executive campaign committee, said showing pictures of young, female party members was less about attracting male voters and more about highlighting the general appeal of the party to the country’s youth.
“Some people, especially the men, they say: ‘Wow, they are very beautiful ladies. Pretty ladies go with the CNRP. Should we go and see those ladies in the headquarters?’” he explained. “The main thing is that the youth are willing,” to join the CNRP, he added.
Branom Kalyaney, a first-year university student who is also involved in the CNRP’s campaign preparations, signed up one of her friends to the opposition party on Saturday.
“I think if we have more women, then men want to join,” she said.
The push to promote young women within the opposition’s campaign has not gone without criticism. According to Mr. Sovichea, the party campaigner, the CNRP’s Phnom Penh campaign director has already been accused by CPP members of using underhanded methods, and even of paying young women to turn up at the CNRP’s campaign headquarters.
The strategy does not appear unique to the CNRP, with a Facbook page attributed to the Phnom Penh branch of the CPP-affiliated Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia also displaying photographs of its events attended in large numbers by young women.
However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Sunday that the posting of such images was not a strategy of the CPP, and any photos on Facebook of attractive women attending party-sponsored events were the result of its young members’ choices.
“It’s not in the guidelines of the party. We don’t work for young and beauty, we work for youth and principle,” he said.
Mr. Siphan said that he was not worried that pictures of attractive women campaigning for the CNRP might steal young members away from the CPP, as the majority of the country’s young people simply do not approve of such tactics.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have young pretty girls to promote the party,” he said. “It doesn’t help that party [the CNRP] because the youth of Cambodia is still very conservative. On Facebook, the youth always raise the national issues, they don’t go on how people look.”