Flags were waved, flyers distributed and platforms promoted Thursday as cheering hordes trucked across Phnom Penh and other major centers to kick off the 2008 national election campaign season.
Thousands streamed across the capital in truck and motorbike convoys in attempts to whip up enthusiasm for the larger parties competing in the July 27 poll: Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, the Sam Rainsy Party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, Funcinpec and the Human Rights Party.
Authorities said that despite the frenzy of political activity, everything remained calm and relatively orderly across the country, although there were a few traffic snarls and the occasional trading of taunts when competing motorcades crossed paths.
For the Cambodian People’s Party, Thursday’s campaign launch also doubled as a celebration of the party’s 57th anniversary—the CPP traces its origins to the communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party founded in 1951.
CPP and Senate President Chea Sim addressed the approximately 10,000 faithful on hand at party headquarters, detailing the party’s history and a laundry list of “magnificent successes” claimed by the current government.
Chea Sim also unveiled the CPP’s 11-point election platform, which was seen being plastered up on buildings across the city later Thursday.
Though short on specifics, the ruling party’s platform called for further strengthening of a “pluralistic democratic system,” national defense, good governance and the development of infrastructure. On the economic front, the platform made specific calls to better develop the agriculture and tourism sectors, as well as boost investment in extractive industries such as oil and gas.
The platform also took pains to address several common criticisms from opposition parties. These include the supposed loss of Cambodian land to neighboring countries, rising inflation and illegal immigration. In its platform, the CPP promised to “make efforts to stabilize the price of basic food” and to “deal systematically” with the illegal immigration issue. Corruption is also raised in the platform, but no specific mention is made of passing the long-awaited anti-corruption law that has been kicking around the halls of government for over a decade. “Deep and wide-ranging reform” is promised instead.
Following Chea Sim’s remarks and the release of white doves and scores of brightly colored balloons the crowds inside the CPP compound poured out onto Norodom Boulevard where they joined with thousands more supporters already packed into decorated pickup trucks.
Dressed in the white cap and shirt that was the standard uniform for ruling party supporters Thursday, 27-year-old Thao Seri Ratanak explained his support for the ruling party.
“I will vote for the CPP,” the civil engineering student said.
“I have seen the roads getting better, and we have better parks. We have tall buildings and electricity-in general things have become very modern.”
“I just feel excited,” CPP supporter Hang Thol, 61, said of the campaign kickoff. “When I join the rally, I just can’t really compare it to anything.” The retiree said that he was for the CPP because he wanted peace and development, but added that he hoped that the party would repay his vote by working to eliminate corruption.
The massive CPP gathering prompted the blocking off of a vast section of Norodom Boulevard, a street that the CPP-led Phnom Penh municipal authority had announced this week it had banned campaign activity on.
Several hundred meters of boulevard not blocked off for the rally were also lined on both sides by the hundreds of trucks and cars that formed the ruling party’s motorcade.
At around the same time a couple of kilometers away in the park across from Wat Botum, SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann danced the upbeat Lam Leav circle dance with party supporters as they waited for SRP President Sam Rainsy to lead the group in its motor procession around the city.
The popular karaoke song “Wearing the Same Shirt Always,” blasted from giant speakers. The opposition party had scripted new lyrics to the song, using the Khmer words “S’auy” and “Puk Roluy,” which translate to “nasty and spoiled” as well as “corrupted.”
“Wearing the same shirt always, it is so dirty, so nasty and spoiled,” went the SRP song.
Interesting to note, the CPP also scripted lyrics to that same song. In their version, “the shirt-which is compared to [Prime Minister] Hun Sen-is good and unique,” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said. “Though it is old, it is good quality and lasts long,” he added, speaking of the shirt.
When Sam Rainsy arrived shortly after 8 am, he did a quick lap around the park carrying a blue and white SRP flag. Hundreds followed in his wake before he climbed atop a party truck and gave a quick speech.
“Vote for SRP. Vote for a cheaper price of goods and gas, and for employment,” he said to the roughly 2,000 people gathered. He also pledged to address the problems of land-grabbing, health care and illegal immigration.
After his speech, the procession of cars, trucks and motorbikes-all bearing the SRP candle logo-began its trek along Sihanouk Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard and on to Phsar Thmei. The SRP processional, which was comprised of around 100 cars and trucks, made its way along Kampuchea Krom Boulevard around 10 am, the CPP caravan hot on its heels.
Sam Mlisoveakny, 24, wore traditional formal wear to the rally instead of the T-shirts and caps sporting SRP logos that most others had on.
She said she had recently completed school and was looking for a job. The SRP’s commitment to addressing unemployment, in addition to her family’s loyalty to the opposition, drew her to the party.
“Some students get jobs, but their salaries are not good,” she said.
SRP lawmaker Ho Vann, who is a candidate for Phnom Penh, said Thursday afternoon that despite a small traffic jam near the roundabout before Monivong Bridge, the day’s events had gone smoothly.
He said that 10,000 supporters had participated in the day’s events, which left him feeling optimistic about the party’s chances in the capital.
“SRP will win Phnom Penh,” he said, though he added that he feared their network was not as strong in the provinces.
A short walk away from the SRP rally, the Norodom Ranariddh Party gathered outside the National Assembly, perhaps trying to gain a bit of good fortune by starting out where their candidates hope to end up.
Though stuck in self-imposed exile overseas, party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh addressed, by long-distance telephone call, the approximately 2,000 on hand Thursday.
The prince exhorted his followers to bring him back to Cambodia through the ballot box, saying that his absence during the election was “shameful for the whole country and Cambodian democracy.”
“I am not wrong or a national traitor,” he said. “When our party wins the election, I have the possibility to return home.”
Addressing the crowd for 20 minutes, the prince also hit on the NRP’s platform, saying that if they won the party would create a new border committee to negotiate disputed borders, put an end to illegal logging and create a ministry of immigration. In a pamphlet distributed at the rally, the party also promised to lower gasoline and food prices and eliminate casinos.
After the prince’s address, the NRP hit the streets in a small convoy of vehicles-many bearing the face of Prince Ranariddh.
Across town, the NRP’s rival in royalism, Funcinpec, commenced its campaign at the Chenla Center, with about 3,000 people turning out to listen to its leadership speak before fanning out across the city in their bright yellow shirts and hats-a dash of color that was not shared by the white-shirted CPP, SRP and NRP.
The Human Rights Party, however, also sported canary-colored shirts, complete with large green party logos on the backs.
Funcinpec President Keo Puth Rasmey reminding supporters of the party’s royalist stance: “We are loyal to the King.”
Keo Puth Rasmey also encouraged supporters to think carefully before casting their ballots.
“If power goes to a dictatorial party, it will cause tremendous harm,” he said. His wife, and Funcinpec’s prime minister candidate, Princess Norodom Arunrasmey instructed supporters to remember their royalist beliefs.
“We have to keep our dignity,” she told the crowd.
Supporter Phos Chan, 51, who attended Thursday’s rally, was skeptical of Funcinpec’s chances, but said that even so, “We always have hope of winning.”
Siem Reap Provincial Governor Sou Phirin, of the CPP, and Sihanoukville Municipal Governor Say Hak, of Funcinpec, said that similar rallies were held in their towns. Both reported that the day went on in an orderly fashion without incident.
National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that some parties had deviated from the official convoy routes they had previously agreed to stick to, but otherwise the day was without irregularities.
(Reporting by Yun Samean, John Maloy, Pin Sisovann, Emily Lodish, Eng Mengleng and Chhay Channyda)