KAMPOT CITY – During the last election five years ago, Sa Vonnarith cast his ballot for the ruling CPP.
But Mr. Vonnarith has had enough. Come Sunday, he will be voting for their main challenger this year, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). After nearly 30 years of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party, Mr. Vonnarith will be voting for change.
“They didn’t do what they said, like with corruption, and they don’t give enough money to teachers and government workers,” said Mr. Vonnarith, who sells gold chains and pendants from a tiny stall at the city’s ramshackle central market.
On Sunday morning, he took a short break to watch CNRP president Sam Rainsy deliver his stump speech from the back of a pickup truck that acted as a mobile stage. Whatever doubts he had about supporting the opposition party before vanished then and there.
“Now that I’ve seen him with my own eyes I feel confident. I hope he’ll be able to do what he says,” Mr. Vonnarith said as Mr. Rainsy’s noisy entourage of party activists pulled out of town on their whirlwind tour of the provinces ahead of election day.
Mr. Rainsy, who returned to Cambodia on Friday after nearly four years abroad avoiding jail time for convictions widely believed to have been politically motivated, is visiting 15 provinces in the space of seven days to drum up support outside the CNRP’s urban strongholds.
But after an effusive welcome in Phnom Penh, where more than 100,000 excited supporters turned out to welcome him back, Mr. Rainsy is heading into CPP country—in other words, the rest of Cambodia and a rural population. If he has any hope of making major gains here, he will need a lot more voters like Mr. Vonnarith.
Without any reliable polling data to speak of in Cambodia, it is hard to say if those rural opposition voters are out there. Analysts expect the CPP, which now controls 90 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats, to hold on to a comfortable majority. But on the first leg of Mr. Rainsy’s provincial tour, which started Saturday, his message of fighting corruption, raising wages and stemming immigration—and alleged land grabbing—from neighboring Vietnam, was gaining traction.
“But my favorite point is getting rid of corruption,” Mr. Vonnarith said.
The gold vendor said he managed to steer mostly clear of bribes at his shop. But at his sister’s school, he said teachers constantly demanded extra money and made students buy the baked goods they offer in exchange for good grades.
Mr. Vonnarith could not say just why he believed Mr. Rainsy, a former finance minister, could change a system of patronage and kickbacks woven deep into the country’s fabric. But he is ready to try something different.
“I believe in what he says and I want change,” he said. “I will tell the people who didn’t see him that he came here.”
Sam Nhoeun, who sells tiny bottles of eye drops around the market from a green rubber basket, also voted for the CPP in the last national election but has yet to make up her mind this time around. She liked what Mr. Rainsy had to say, especially the bit about raising living standards.
Seated on the market floor next to a friend and her small pile of pungent durian, Ms. Nhoeun said she can make 50,000 riel, or about $12.50, on a very good day selling her eye drops.
“I liked what he said that the Khmer should not be poor because a lot of Cambodians are poor,” she said.
“If he says it, I believe he can do it, I just believe in him,” she said. “He’s come back to help the people.”
Ms. Nhoeun said she voted for the CPP the last time because she knew nothing about Mr. Rainsy. Having finally seem him in the flesh and heard him speak, she said, “now I know that he loves the people.”
Oum Buntha, a burly ex-soldier with a meaty face and a carefully coiffed pompadour, watched Mr. Rainsy’s market stop from his shop across the street selling scarves and frilly dresses.
A long-time Rainsy supporter, he honed in on the party leader’s talk of corruption.
“I like that he wants to change the regime; the old one is too corrupt,” he said. “If you don’t know any high level people, you don’t go anywhere. I used to be a soldier, but I couldn’t get promoted because I didn’t have any relatives and I didn’t know anyone higher up.”
After leaving the army, Mr. Buntha helped his wife start up a tailor’s stall at the market and opened his shop five years ago.
Not so far from the border, many of their customers are Vietnamese. An island belonging to Vietnam but claimed by many Cambodians lies off the coast. Mr. Rainsy’s talk of “yuon” invaders and the CPP’s cozy ties with Hanoi, which installed Mr. Hun Sen in power in the 1980s, has cache here, for all its racist overtones.
“I don’t mind if they come as tourists, but I don’t want them to live here because this is Cambodian territory,” Mr. Buntha said. “If they come here, the next generation might not have land to live.”
The shop owner said there were many more like him here, “but they just don’t talk about it because they’re scared.”
“Look at this. A lot of people support him,” he said, staring at a newspaper photo of the mass rally that welcomed Mr. Rainsy back to Phnom Penh on Friday. “A lot of people suffer these days. They’ve lost their land. They don’t have jobs. I can’t even find the words. It’s injustice.”
By the time Mr. Rainsy hit Kampot on Sunday, where about 3,000 supporters took over the city’s central roundabout, his provincial tour was finally picking up some steam after a slow start.
For most of Saturday, the 1,500 or so activists who followed Mr. Rainsy out of Kompong Speu that morning in a convoy of rusty trucks and motorbikes were just about the only ones cheering him on. Wherever they stopped, Mr. Hun Sen’s image peered down from billboards and campaign banners with hardly a CNRP poster in sight.
Stops and starts were behind schedule and sometimes improvised. Out of his car and on foot, Mr. Rainsy walked briskly and shook hands but almost never stopped to talk. And what was to be an early Sunday morning walk around a sleepy market in nearby Kep turned out a bust with hardly a soul about for him to greet in the drizzling rain. Mr. Rainsy had barely taken a step out of his car before turning around and racing straight back to Kampot for a waiting crowd.
That afternoon in Sihanoukville, at least 5,000 supporters had turned out at the city’s Independence Park for the rowdiest rally yet. But even where locals watched Mr. Rainsy in silence, as they did around Kampot market, support appeared to be turning his way.
Pov, an off-duty soldier still sporting his camouflage pants and heavy boots, watched Mr. Rainsy’s campaign stop at a market in Kompong Speu province’s Baset district on Saturday quietly from across the street.
After hearing Mr. Rainsy speak, he said he still wasn’t ready to back the opposition but was encouraged by what he heard.
“I think he can do 60 percent of what he says,” said Pov, who declined to give his full name for fear of running afoul of his superiors.
“I believe he can improve the economy since he has a lot of financial experience. I like what he said about getting rid of corruption, improving the economy and lowering electricity prices.
“This is the first time I’ve seen him,” he said. “I think he has a great style.”
Nhel Phalla, an 18-year-old waitress at a dusty roadside restaurant who will be voting for the first time on Sunday, caught Mr. Rainsy’s stop at a market later that day in Takeo province just across the border from Kompong Speu.
“I might choose the CNRP, maybe 70 or 80 percent,” she said during a lull in business.
“The CPP said they will fight corruption, but they never have,” she said. “My family had a land dispute with my neighbor, but my neighbor bribed the village chief and the village chief helped them.”
Her friend and fellow waitress, Phun Sona, also voting for the first time, said most of their other friends plan to vote CPP on Sunday “because they’re scared of the village chief and some other officials.”
But Ms. Sona has hopes of working in a garment factory some day and liked Mr. Rainsy’s talk of nearly doubling current wages there to $150 a month. She had to drop out of school after the seventh grade and now makes $50 per month at the restaurant.
She’s even been lobbied by her parents, former CPP supporters poached from the ruling party by the CNRP’s campaign pledge of a first-ever pension for the elderly.
“My parents say: ‘If you want to help me, you have to vote CNRP,’” she said. “Even my grandfather told me to vote for the CNRP.”
The opposition hasn’t laid out a clear plan for how it expects to do all this—it talks mostly of finding the extra cash by stamping out corruption—but Ms. Sona wants to give them a chance.
Despite mounting predictions that the CPP may lose some Assembly seats in this elections for the first time in 20 years, party officials say they are not worried.
The CPP still runs more than 9 of every 10 commune councils across the country, which nominate village chiefs and oversee most aspects of rural life in the provinces, where this election will be won or lost.
The National Election Committee is stacked with ex-CPP members and has resisted most calls to reform. Independent audits of its latest voter list suggest that up to a million Cambodians could be disenfranchised on election day. One audit said 10 percent of the names on the list appear to belong to people who do not exist, raising fears of “ghost” voters.
And after years of peace and steady, if unequal, economic growth, Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP still command most support outside Phnom Penh. These elections are unlikely to change that.
Chhay Chanthou, a stalwart CPP supporter and canned goods vendor said she had no plans to switch allegiance after Mr. Rainsy’s stop at her market in Takeo on Saturday.
She believes the ruling party’s warnings that a CPP loss would plunge the country back into civil war—and thinks Mr. Hun Sen himself would be the one to start it.
“He would not stay still because he is used to being in his position,” she said. “He or his supporters would stand up for him.”
Ms. Chanthou said she did not mind the political blackmail and would vote for the CPP anyway on its pledge to keep building roads and schools and pagodas.
“The people believe in Hun Sen,” she said.
But perhaps not quite as many as before.