kompong cham province – The convoy of Toyota pickup trucks packed with Norodom Ranariddh Party activists thundered along a dirt road through deserted rice fields, royalist anthems blaring from the loudspeakers.
But upon reaching the remote village of Sosen in Prey Chhor district Tuesday afternoon, no one appeared fazed by the fact that an NRP crowd was gathering in the shade of a sign for the Human Rights Party.
The scene illustrates a generally accepted truth in Cambodian politics: Kompong Cham is a battlefield that can make or break a party in the National Assembly elections.
With 18 seats—currently held by the CPP (8), SRP (5) and Funcinpec (5)—and more than a million votes to compete for, everyone knows that there are trophies to be won here.
Observers say the province is witnessing more electioneering activity than ever before, with 10 parties campaigning hard here.
“The CPP are certainly the biggest [in Kompong Cham] but the SRP are noticeably stronger, and the NRP, HRP and Funcinpec are also fighting hard,” according to Neang Sovath, provincial coordinator for election-monitoring NGO Comfrel, which will have 1,350 monitors observing polling in the province Sunday.
“It’s difficult to predict how individual parties will do,” he said.
According to Thay Kimhor, third candidate for NRP in Kompong Cham, the NRP were focusing a lot of their energy on out-of-the-way places such as Sosen village.
“It’s very competitive in Kompong Cham, and there is tension over what the outcome will be,” he said, adding that the NRP was aiming to win eight seats here.
“If you vote for the wrong party, injustice will keep happening to you,” he told a crowd of about 70 villagers afterwards. “They will steal your land from under you.”
One of those watching, Nong Hem, 65, said a big factor in his decision about whom to vote for was who would be most likely to build a new road to the village.
“The CPP and NRP are equal here,” he said, adding that he had voted for Funcinpec in 2003. “I’m still listening to what the different parties have to say before I make up my mind.”
Poan Thol, 60, said that as most people in areas such as this were farmers, a good agricultural policy was key to winning votes.
“We want a party who protects the farmers’ interests,” he said, adding that the royalist brand still had cachet in rural areas.
“They will get votes here because the royals represent the Khmer identity,” he said.
Lor Hal, 39, said she could not make up her mind between the NRP and Funcinpec.
“I don’t know what the difference is between them, but I think maybe the NRP are better for women,” she said.
Outside the Kompong Cham provincial offices earlier Tuesday, Deputy Provincial Governor Rom Tekkhak Mony, who is also deputy provincial president of Funcinpec, did not deny that his party was fighting a rearguard battle.
“This election is for us about protecting the seats we have,” he said.
Funcinpec is in a new phase of reforming itself and is under added pressure given the royalist competition from the NRP, Rom Tekkhak Mony added.
“We will campaign right up until the last day to get every vote,” he said.
SRP lawmaker for Kompong Cham Mao Monyvann predicted that the SRP would win 10 decisive seats in the province.
“[The people] are clear that the only party that will bring change is the SRP,” he said.
CPP lawmaker Chin Kimsreng said the ruling party would increase their majority in Kompong Cham to 12 seats.
“We have clear and correct principles, and our support is strong here,” he said by phone Tuesday.
Neang Sovath of Comfrel said that although the atmosphere in Kompong Cham was peaceful, with a marked reduction in serious electoral abuses, the system was still far from ideal.
“There are subtle forms of intimidation and control that affect the people in provinces like this one,” he said. “The odds are always stacked in the [CPP’s] favor.”
“All we can hope for is that the election will be more acceptable than 2003,” Neang Sovath added.