Paltry wages. High electricity bills. Corruption. They are bigger issues in Phnom Penh than any part of the country, and they could be pushing the CPP into second or third place among city voters.
Though there are no official polls available, analysts and many urban voters say the opposition Sam Rainsy Party could topple the CPP in Phnom Penh and gain the bulk of the municipality’s 12 seats this year.
“Issues like these add up, and they generate a general feeling of being fed up,” said one political analyst. “It crosses age groups, it crosses sexes, it crosses all the social sectors.”
The Sam Rainsy Party has drawn thousands to its rallies here and focused much of its rhetoric on problems specific to city dwellers. The issue of rising electricity costs, for instance, has swayed some voters to his camp, the analyst said.
Other voters are repelled by media reports of corruption within the ruling coalition government.
“Most of the people here like the Sam Rainsy Party, not the CPP,” said Sorn Vicheth, a 22-year-old economics student at Norton University. “In Phnom Penh, the voter has a lot of information, and they can see the reality that the CPP promised to do these things—like build a sewer system—and then they don’t do it.”
In 1998, the seats were split evenly between the CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, each party receiving four seats.
But the Sam Rainsy Party drew vast support in the 2002 commune elections. Though the party won only six of 76 communes in Phnom Penh, it received more than 125,000 votes. The CPP tallied about 180,000 votes in the capital.
“Sam Rainsy definitely has a strong presence in the city, building on the success he’s had in the last elections,” said Dominic Cardy, an analyst with the US-based National Democratic Institute. “He’s always been more popular in the city than in the countryside, so it’s a smart campaign strategy for them.”
Mao Yourann, vice president of the Sam Rainsy Party in Phnom Penh, said he hopes the party will win at least eight of the 12 seats. He said the party leader’s stance on workers’ wages, gasoline prices, utilities, illegal immigrants and corruption are particularly appealing here.
“These things affect the people in Phnom Penh,” he said. “And the people here understand a lot about the real situation.”
Funcinpec officials also see the capital as a chance venue to wrest votes from the CPP. Phnom Penh is the focus of most competing parties because voters are more likely to advocate change, said Princess Norodom Vacheara, Funcinpec’s first candidate in Phnom Penh.
“You have a lot of intellectual people. It is completely different from the provinces,” she said.
“The Sam Rainsy Party is very strong in Phnom Penh, for sure. The CPP, I don’t know. I think people have had enough with the way that the CPP runs the country,” she said.
The loss of Chea Sophara, the popular former governor who was sacked after the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, also might have hurt the CPP. Many Phnom Penh residents attributed improvements in the city to him, and he was one of the ruling party’s most youthful public figures.
In his stead, longtime CPP President and Senate President Chea Sim—the party’s first candidate in Phnom Penh—has become a more public face.
“Chea Sim doesn’t generate an image of youthfulness,” the analyst said. “Phnom Penh is a business place, a place where people think, a place where life moves a thousand miles a minute. If you put up the image of Chea Sim, it just doesn’t create a lot of energy.”
Regardless of their party favorites, most city residents agree that streets, schools and general infrastructure are better than they were a few years ago.
The CPP has labored to capitalize on that point.
In the weeks leading up to and during the campaign period, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other party figures have regularly presided over the televised inaugurations of public projects.
“People see the improvements in the city,” said Oum Sarith, secretary-general of the Senate and CPP member. “The people see the achievements of the party, the government.”
On Wednesday, several thousands attended a ceremony to open a pagoda in Russei Keo district, where Chea Sim declared the party’s progress in improving irrigation, roads and hospitals.
“What the party leaders have promised, they have done,” said Noun Sopheap, the CPP director in Tuol Sangke commune.
She called Sam Rainsy’s apparent upswing in Phnom Penh a “rumor.”
“They ask workers to demonstrate, and then when people die, he runs away…. Only a small amount of the people support Sam Rainsy,” she said.
But one attendee approached by reporters after the ceremony said infrastructure was not enough for his vote.
“Just because one party builds a lot of infrastructure doesn’t mean I will vote for them,” said 71-year-old Sok Souen, downplaying the CPP button on his lapel. “When the time comes, I will vote for the party that will reduce poverty and protect the borders.”