Thousands of young moped-saddled Cambodians trailed opposition leaders in a clamorous and colorful cavalcade around capital Phnom Penh today, highlighting how seriously Cambodia’s young voters are taking Sunday’s elections.
At stake are 123 seats in the country's parliament and control of a fast-growing economy, which Prime Minister Hun Sen (oft-described as “wily” and a “strongman”) has controlled since 1985.
Though most observers believe the incumbent Cambodian People's Party (CPP), victorious in the four previous elections, will also win Sunday, the youth vote will be crucial: Around 70 percent of the population is under 35.
"We want change, so we vote for 7 [referring to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP)]," says Bun Heng, an apprentice mechanic, among the thousands awaiting the arrival of the opposition leaders into Phnom Penh. Seven is the number designated to the opposition on the ballot, four is the number allocated to the ruling party.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is back in the country, though barred from running for office, after a July 12 royal pardon for what he believes are politicized charges. His presence has galvanized the opposition and many young Cambodians who are tired of more than two decades of Cambodia People’s Party control.
It’s an uphill battle. Fears of ballot stuffing and tampering with the election rolls have surfaced in recent days, with local English language media reports saying that the majority of Phnom Penh's constituencies have voter registration rates exceeding 100 percent.
“The fact that the CPP is so well entrenched in the administration, down to the village level, gives it a further notable advantage,” says Milton Osborne, a former Australian diplomat in Cambodia and author of several books on Southeast Asia. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party also has to contend with local media, which are under the thumb of the ruling party.
So, young urban Cambodians seeking change have taken to Facebook and other social media to share information and rally to the opposition side.
Sopheap Chak, a young Cambodian blogger, says that younger compatriots “demand more transparent, concrete polices from each of the political parties to address on common problems including land, corruption, and independent media access that this country is facing.”
The CNRP has sought to capitalize on anger over land grabs to bolster its campaign – which has been tarnished otherwise by stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiment. As many as 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by land grabs since 2003, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (Licadho). And although many recognize an opposition win is unlikely, the hope is that a strong opposition showing could help encourage the government to better-respect the rights of those displaced.
“Development in this country is not for the people, it is for the small few – the government and the big company,” says Tep Vanny, 32, who will work as an election observer on Sunday and has led protests against the eviction of more than 3,000 families from around Phnom Penh's Beoung Kak lake – once a popular tourist draw but now a walled-off landfill awaiting the building of a hotel by a company linked to the CPP.
But not all Cambodians want the ruling party to go. The CCP is appealing to voters on the back of 7 percent economic growth in recent years – powered by textile exports to Western countries that are also substantial aid donors, as well as almost $10 billion worth of Chinese investment.
A recent survey by the US-based International Republican Institute found that 79 percent of Cambodians thought that the country was heading “in the right direction.”
“The majority of Cambodians, especially in the rural areas, support PM Hun Sen due to his popular politics and certain achievements in rural development and poverty reduction,” says Vannarith Chheang, a young global leader at the World Economic Forum and director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
And if the opposition’s parade was animated by thousands of young citizens, so too was a final Friday evening CPP rally, which blocked off most of a square kilometer between the Royal Palace and Independence Monument, two Phnom Penh's landmarks.
The event was more party than politics, with little by way of speechmaking but ample music and dance for a mostly 20-something crowd.
“I cannot say in words why [I] support CPP, I follow my family” says Sopheat But, a 20-something logistician, adding, “I just think they will do a better job of running the country.”
But CPP backer Mao Pal, 32, is more articulate in his criticism of the opposition. He says that promises like the opposition’s pledge to raise minimum wage from the government's recently proposed $80 a month to $150 are implausible: “They talk about money but it's not related to the real situation in the country.”