There is widespread consent among political analysts in Cambodia that the CPP will be returned to power in July’s national election.
But online, the popularity contest between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his rivals in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is much harder to measure.
On his Facebook page last week, CNRP president Sam Rainsy asked his followers to help him surpass Mr. Hun Sen in the number of “likes” he had, a feat that he achieved Wednesday evening.
“Today, at 19:09, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has officially more Facebook followers (67,595) than outgoing prime minister Hun Sen (67,561)!” said a statement from the CNRP. As of Sunday afternoon, Mr. Rainsy had topped 75,000 likes compared to just more than 68,000 for Mr. Hun Sen.
With severely restricted access to mass media and limited resources to spread its message on the ground, the CNRP is hoping to capitalize on the fast-expanding population of Facebook users in the country to help rally support for the party.
But can social media really make a difference in Cambodian politics when less than 20 percent of the population is online, and only 5 percent is on Facebook?
The 700,000 Cambodians who use Facebook may have access to more balanced information than the majority of the country, which relies mainly on radio and television channels that are aligned with the ruling party.
But political analysts and observers say it is yet to be seen how effective social networking sites such as Facebook can be in engaging people in politics.
“With social media and expanding access—though still extremely limited—to the Internet and to the blogosphere and to Facebook, there is lots of opportunity” for political parties to spread their message online, said Laura Thornton, resident director of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute in Cambodia.
“We have seen parties in Malaysia really take advantage of social media. Malaysia also has one-sided media and you have seen Internet explode with online publications, which fundamentally changed the political environment in Malaysia,” she said.
“The difference in Malaysia is people have much more access to the Internet, but I think there is still opportunity there,” she added.
Though he lost the national election in May, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim drew massive anti-government crowds before the vote and continued to do so afterward on the grounds the election was unfairly contested.
According to the government, Internet access in Cambodia is rapidly expanding. At an annual meeting of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication in March, secretary of state Sarak Khan said that there were 2.7 million Cambodians online by the end of 2012, a 60 percent increase from the previous year.
With smartphones and broadband Internet getting cheaper, this figure is likely to steadily increase, according to Be Chantra, a social networking manager at the Open Institute, an organization that promotes the use of technology in education.
“Mobile devices are much cheaper, smartphones now are under $100 and they can access Internet. And the 3G on mobiles is quite low cost, which has changed access to Internet, especially Facebook and YouTube,” he said.
“I have seen lately on Facebook everyone is talking, especially about politics and the upcoming election because they may think that Facebook is a channel that can get a range of information. On TV they may get only one way of information, but on Facebook it is two-way communications and they can interact,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy says that the emergence of social media networks such as Facebook has presented a significant challenge to the CPP’s ability to control the media in Cambodia.
“Social media has already put an end to the CPP’s long-time monopoly on mass video communication and this will have far-reaching implications,” he said in an email, noting that “Rainsy TV,” a series of online videos in which Mr. Rainsy speaks on various issues, has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people in the past month.
“The Internet will increasingly become the primary channel for young Cambodians to rally for change in the upcoming elections. The tide is quickly turning against Hun Sen and his efforts to suppress the voice of the people with his stranglehold over traditional media,” Mr. Rainsy added.
Mu Sochua, a CNRP candidate in the national election, said that along with dedicated staff to manage the Facebook pages of Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha, who has amassed about 70,000 likes on his own page, the CNRP has asked provincial activists to launch localized social media campaigns.
On at least a dozen CNRP Facebook pages focusing on the party’s campaigns in various provinces, users can view images and video of CNRP candidates delivering speeches or get updates on other party activities. They can also find out what the CNRP’s political adversaries think about their campaign.
The CPP has its own online presence. Although the CPP’s main Facebook page has just 561 likes, a network of pages and profiles managed by members of the pro-CPP Union of Youth Federation of Cambodia (UYFC), headed by Mr. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, are leading the party’s campaign for the youth vote.
Frequently updated posts on UYCF pages from all over the country tout the achievements of Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP, occasionally mock Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy, but mostly show young CPP supporters excitedly taking part in activities throughout the country, often alongside Mr. Hun Many.
According to Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, the relatively small percentage of Cambodians online represents an important demographic for the opposition party.
“I think even though the number of users is still small, they can have a domino effect on the general population because users of Facebook or social media tools can educate their relatives and friends and colleagues. So even though the number is not very big, it is very powerful tool [for the CNRP] to use,” he said.
However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that online campaigning is unlikely to impact the ruling party’s traditional support in rural areas or shake up the current political order.
“For the time being, I don’t think Facebook and electronics will affect voting, but it might affect politicians—opposition or ruling party—who can learn from each other about what the people need and demand. So that is important for politicians at national level, but at grassroots not so much,” he said.
As the CNRP has devoted more of its resources to efforts to promote itself online, the CPP has put little effort into creating its own online following. Mr. Hun Sen’s Facebook page was last updated April 22.
While the majority of people using Facebook in Cambodia might not intend to use it to follow politics, Facebook’s interface exposes everyone who uses it to the ideas and events going on within their circle of “friends,” said Tharum Bun, a social media consultant in Phnom Penh.
While Mr. Bun agreed that the CNRP is unlikely to see any substantial benefits from its online presence in this election, as more Cambodians connect to the Internet, the opposition could start to see more support.
“Social media will continue to flourish as a medium of choice for a larger Cambodian audience in the coming years. For any political party not establishing itself online well, it means that it chooses to rule out a powerful communication tool to reach out their potential voters,” he said.