Parties Fight For Votes in Phnom Penh

A huge map of Phnom Penh dominates one wall of Kong Sareach’s office. It shows every one of the city’s 73 communes, from the crowded alleys around Phsar Thmei to the breezy rice farms of the far suburbs.

Kong Sareach is organizing the CPP’s commune council election efforts in Phnom Penh, and he is good at it. He knows where his workers are, what messages they are going to convey, and who his target voters are. The party is planning pa­rades, rallies, and even door-to-door canvassing by candidates and volunteers.

“Our goal is to make this campaign a festival, not a funeral,” he says. “It is up to the voters whether we will win. They all know what we have done” in the years since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power.

The CPP will remind voters of the party’s achievements, from ending the fighting to sprucing up the city. Kong Sareach will have more than 2,000 candidates and party workers taking that message to Phnom Penh voters before the Feb 3 election.

But a track record can cut two ways.

At the far western edge of the city, in Cham Cheou village,  Dangkao district, a dozen villagers lounge under a house.

Fueled by rice wine, they’re getting a jump on the “festival” part of the election. They think a number of things need improvement, and they shout them out with exuberance: Better justice. Better roads. Better schools. Electricity.

The host points up at a cement pole carrying power lines to a hospital on nearby Route 3. “That went up in 1999,” he said. “They said we’d be able to use it by 2001, but we still can’t use it.”

He pauses, then breaks into giggles. “Maybe we’ll organize a demonstration, and knock it down.”

The Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties say this election will be all about change, and both predict they will make major gains in Phnom Penh.

“It’s a question of political fatigue,” says Keo Remy, a Funcinpec member of parliament and Kong Sareach’s counterpart. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the same leadership for 15 or 20 years.”

Keo Remy says Funcinpec supporters include business people, civil servants, teachers and royalists. “We also have intellectuals, students and people in the squatter communities,” he says.

He believes the party’s great strength “is the competence of our candidates. We have many teachers and retired civil servants, and we have educated them to avoid corruption.”

Ho Visal, who is organizing the city campaign for the Sam Rainsy Party, believes it can win in 37 of the city’s 73 communes. “We will do better than in 1998,” he says. “These are conservative estimates.”

The Sam Rainsy Party has tried to develop support among factory workers, squatters, students, motodops and others living at the economic margins.

“We also hope to reach the small merchants and medium-to-low civil servants,” says Phi Thach, the Sam Rainsy Party chief of cabinet and himself a candidate in Chaktomuk commune.

Phnom Penh, with a population of nearly one million, is very much up for grabs, and all three major parties are running slates in each commune, for a total of 652 council seats.

The CPP has traditionally been strongest in the countryside and more vulnerable in cities. In 1993, Funcinpec won 54 percent of the vote in Phnom Penh, compared to the CPP’s 31 percent.

In 1998, the newly-formed Sam Rainsy Party took 28 percent of the city vote, siphoning voters mostly away from Funcinpec, which dropped to 34 percent. The CPP was virtually unchanged at 30 percent.

Random interviews around the city found the CPP strongest in the suburbs, while city dwellers are more likely to consider Funcinpec or the Sam Rainsy Party.

Hoeung Huot, 52, runs a small restaurant in the Wat Neak Kavorn squatter village west of the municipal train station. She has lived there for 10 years.

“We know city hall plans to clear us out, we just don’t know when,” she says. Her wooden restaurant is in a busy spot, which is important because she supports 10 children and grandchildren.

“I will vote for anyone who will help the people stay here,” she says. “It is comfortable and safe.” But since the three major fires in squatter areas in 2001, residents now take turns nightly to watch for arsonists.

She doesn’t know her current commune chief. “They never come around here,” she said. “I wouldn’t know who to complain to.” She hopes the new commune council will be more responsive.

So My, 35, drives a moto-taxi for a living. He has three children and say he is looking for well-educated candidates, with good character, who will let the squatters stay and help the area.

“I want a new chief with better knowledge to help improve this area,” he says. “When we have a crisis, we want someone we can run to who can solve it.”

Fellow moto-dop Ek Bunrith, 34, says squatters would move if they could get good land and moving expenses.

“I know the candidates from all three parties, and I will vote for those who follow democracy,” he says. “In my area, a lot of people like democracy.”

Mao Sophy, 32, says she will vote for Funcinpec because her family always has. “Nobody has pressured us here,” she says. “We can vote as we please.”

When the early shift ends at the garment factories along  Pochentong Boulevard, the dusty side streets fill with girls heading to boarding houses where they live four to a room in cluttered cubicles.

Chhun Kimsreng, 25, will go home to Kompong Cham and vote for the CPP. “It’s the party that liberated the people from the Khmer Rouge,” she says shyly.

She hopes the new commune councils can convince factory owners to build in Kompong Cham so she won’t have to work so far from her family.

It’s a wish virtually every factory worker expresses. “I would rather stay with my family, but how would we survive?” asks Pen Srey Mao, 22, from Prey Veng. She is the oldest of seven children, and her father is dead. She will travel home to vote, but would not say which party she supports.

The noise and dirt of the squatter villages and factory neighborhoods seem a world away from Prey Lavear village in Dangkao district, where the only sounds are a barking dog and the hum of a generator charging a dozen batteries.

“This is a strong CPP area, also Funcinpec,” says Chor Seng,  a 52-year-old rice farmer. “We will vote for the CPP because we know the people and we think they have done a good job. We can trust them.”

They are also the only party that has made the rounds with photographs of the candidates, explaining who is running.

That said, Chor Seng has a long list of matters she wants the new commune council to address: better roads, electricity, poverty reduction.

“I don’t know if this commune council will make much difference. No meeting has been held yet to explain the changes,” she says.

Most important, she says, “we want better security. This is a safe area, but the road coming here is not. People here don’t go out to deserted areas after 7 pm. We want the government to provide safety.”




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