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No Major Political Changes Expected as Cambodians Vote - 2003-07-26


Voters in Cambodia head for the polls for general elections Sunday. Cambodia's transition to democracy after years of Khmer Rouge rule and Vietnamese occupation has been a painful one. But, the Cambodian political landscape is evolving.

The song, titled Wear the shirt, don't take it off," has been blaring on loudspeakers in virtually every town and village in Cambodia. The refrain likens the ruling Cambodian Peoples' Party, the CPP, to a comfortable old shirt, and exhorts the listener not to take it off.

Observers, both Cambodian and foreign, are of the unanimous opinion that voters will opt to keep wearing the CPP shirt. So the question becomes, what do you wear with it? In other words, the 2003 Cambodian election is about who comes in second. Which party will be wooed by the CPP to fill the role of a junior coalition partner that will give the CPP a working majority?

In the last election in 1998, the royalist Funcinpec of Prince Norodom Ranariddh ended up the junior partner of the CPP, and the third-place Sam Rainsy Party became the opposition.

Speaking briefly during a motorized campaign rally wending through Phnom Penh, Prince Ranariddh had a seasoned politician's confidence in victory. "I think that we will be doing very, very well, more than anyone has expected," he said.

Analysts say this election seems different from the U.N.-run elections of 1993 or the bitter contest of 1998. Echoing other senior diplomats in the capital, Singapore's ambassador, Vernese Mathews, points out that both voters and candidates are more sophisticated.

"If you want to know how it compares to '98, I would say there have been many changes - changes in the mindset of the people, younger people coming to vote, a greater debate," he said. "There was never such a debate. Look, political parties are sitting across and asking each other questions."

Real issues, such as clean water, schools, roads, and crop yields were raised in candidate forums. According to Ambassador Mathews, the parties have had to respond to a more skeptical and more sophisticated electorate.

"Political parties have changed their tactics," he said. "At one stage one party was attacking this particular party. Now they find out this doesn't sell very well. They are changing their tactics, which again means that they are paying greater attention to what the ground wants. They are paying greater attention to how the ground is reacting."

CPP leader Hun Sen has done very little personal campaigning. The CPP has instead showcased public works projects, such as schools and roads. George Fulsom, president of the International Republican Institute, which has election observers across Cambodia, says in the voter's mind, the government and the party are one and the same.

"The common perception among Cambodians is that there is a unity of identity between the Cambodian government and the majority party, the CPP, that there is no difference," he said.

Until recently, Funcinpec was believed in decline, and the Sam Rainsy party in the ascendant. But diplomats here agree that Funcinpec shook off its lethargy and staged a remarkable comeback in the closing weeks of the campaign.

As for Sam Rainsy, diplomatic and political analysts say he seems to draw in younger voters, so his big chance will come in five years, when 30 percent of the electorate will be new voters and the comfortable old CPP shirt may be out of style.

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