PHNOM PENH —
Campaigning in Cambodia’s general election is nearing its close as the eight parties contesting the ballot make their final bids for votes ahead of Sunday’s poll. The real contest, though, is between two parties: the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party whose leader Sam Rainsy recently returned from four years of self-imposed exile.
The day after his triumphant arrival in Phnom Penh last Friday, opposition leader Sam Rainsy began a whirlwind nationwide tour with party deputy Kem Sokha.
Sam Rainsy is the best known and most popular opposition figure, and in a nation that values personality over policy, the opposition CNRP is banking that his presence will translate into gains at the ballot box.
Meanwhile, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been playing up the animosity that characterized the relationship between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha in recent years to portray an opposition divided.
Opposition politicians say those days are long gone. Instead, they are focusing on what analysts say are their first attempt to entice voters with new government policies.
Boys hold flags of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) outside a house at a slum area in Phnom Penh July 23, 2013.
Those who have resonated most, said opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, were the ones who promised to improve living standards, boosting the monthly minimum wage for workers from $80 to $150.
Workers in Cambodia - many of whom were young women in the booming garment sector - were typically expected to support parents and siblings back in the provinces, said Son Chhay.
“This is a policy that first we are thinking about the welfare of the worker, but it affects [others too] because the worker will now travel to their home village and now try to encourage their relatives to vote for the opposition because they will [be] saying to them that if the opposition win they can get the salary increase, then there will be more opportunity for them to support the family better,” said Son Chhay.
It could prove a smart move, as could the opposition’s pledge to boost civil servants’ monthly salaries to $250, and to pay the country’s 600,000 elderly people a monthly pension of $10. Currently pensioners get no money. The opposition reckons these three policies will benefit nearly two million voters - that is just over 20 percent of the electorate.
Despite those offerings, the momentum in the election lies squarely with the ruling party, which has not been out of power in three decades. Its electoral machinery, which melds government and the party from the prime minister’s office to the most remote villages in the land, is slick, well-funded and highly effective.
The CPP also enjoys total control over all television broadcasting, almost all radio stations and the main Khmer-language newspapers.
No surprise, then, that Sam Rainsy’s return - in which 100,000 people lined the streets of Phnom Penh last Friday - went entirely unreported here despite making headlines abroad.
It all added up to a tilted playing field, not the least of which was that the opposition had a tough time getting its message across, said political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
“Especially how to reach out to people. They don’t have enough means, they don’t have enough time to organize themselves and furthermore election campaigns are a bit strange here. They put the emphasis and concentrate on rallying. There’s no canvassing," said the analyst.
Despite Sam Rainsy’s return last Friday, he is still barred from standing as a candidate and blocked from voting. So earlier this week he asked that the National Election Committee - the body that oversees elections - instate him as a candidate.
On Tuesday the NEC, which has long been criticized as beholden to the ruling party, turned him down.
Lao Mong Hay said that was a mistake not least because allowing Sam Rainsy to compete would have removed some grounds for criticism by the international community. And, he said with the amount of support the opposition has proven it can muster in urban areas, it could have damaging consequences at home too.
“Suppose that Sam Rainsy with that kind of support behind him first were to boycott, secondly were not to recognize the results of the election, and with that kind of crowd behind - they’ve been active especially the young - it could turn out to be a lot of trouble. Riots and all that,” he said.
The opposition remains optimistic that even at this late stage the NEC will change its mind.
As the campaign winds down with few reports of violence, observers say it has been conducted in an environment that is more open and less fearful than previous elections.
Analyst Lao Mong Hay said that had little to do with a change of heart by the ruling party.
“But it’s thanks to international pressure over the years, you see - starting off with the recommendations for free and fair elections of the U.N. special rapporteur. And the recommendation that Sam Rainsy should be allowed to return and participate in the election. And his recommendation has been picked up by the E.U., by the U.S.,” he said.
The eyes of those donor countries and others will be squarely on Cambodia in the coming days and beyond.
On Friday the parties will hold their final rallies and the candidates will offer their closing speeches. After that the country will enjoy a 24-hour cooling-off period before polling stations open early Sunday. With voter registration rates in battleground areas well over 100 percent, election observers say ballot stuffing remains a big risk.