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Cambodia's Ruling Party Faces Tough Test in Wooing Urban Voters


FILE - Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party gather during a local election campaign in Phnom Penh, May 20, 2017.

In the run-up to commune elections on Sunday, Cambodia's ruling party has been promising residents of the capital it will resolve long-running land disputes, award them land titles and build better roads.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has been reminding city dwellers that they owe urban infrastructure and quality-of-life improvements to the ruling party.

"People are living in happiness, both physically and mentally," senior party administrator Say Chhum told thousands of attendees at a rally launching the party's Phnom Penh campaign.

The effort is an attempt to attract Phnom Penh voters who have come out against the CPP in all but one national election since 1993. This election, with 105 commune chief and 899 commune councilor positions at stake, will be a key test of the CPP's efforts to woo urban voters.

One reason for the CPP's struggles in Phnom Penh, analysts say, is that the capital is now home to the most sophisticated and educated population in the country, including growing numbers of young people who flock here to take advantage of education and work opportunities. Phnom Penh had 1.5 million residents as of the 2012 census, but it is growing so fast because of migration from the provinces that it is now believed to be around 3 million, according to Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum, a policy research institution.

As is often true elsewhere in the world, Cambodia's urban and rural populations are fundamentally different.

"Whereas people in rural Cambodia tend to accept fatalistically decisions made by authorities, inhabitants of the capital more often do not accept misgovernment," Markus Karbaum, a German political scientist specializing in Cambodian politics and economics, told VOA Cambodia in an email.

Information access

He noted that people in cities have easier access to information about the development projects and governance issues that affect their daily lives. Just as important, he said, was the fact that the CPP's political power largely derives from mobilizing deep-rooted patronage networks that are more effective in rural areas than in urban ones.

FILE - Supporters of the Cambodian People's Party stand on a truck as they are surrounded by supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party during a local election campaign in Phnom Penh, May 20, 2017.
FILE - Supporters of the Cambodian People's Party stand on a truck as they are surrounded by supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party during a local election campaign in Phnom Penh, May 20, 2017.

Because of this, he predicted that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would not only achieve a "landslide victory" in Phnom Penh, but also make significant inroads in other urbanizing areas.

The CPP's best performance in the capital might have been the 2012 commune elections, when it won all 96 communes in Phnom Penh. Shortly afterward, the two opposition groups, the Sam Rainsy Party, named after an opposition leader, and the Human Rights Party, merged to form the CNRP. It picked up 55 seats, a stunning gain on the 29 seats it had already held in the 123-seat parliament. In Phnom Penh, the CNRP took 58 percent of the vote and claimed seven of the capital's 12 parliamentary seats.

Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling party, acknowledged during the current campaign that the CPP was "put on alert" by its poor 2013 performance in Phnom Penh and elsewhere.

"There are a lot of reasons they are not doing well in Phnom Penh," said Ou Virak. "One, the population of Phnom Penh, if you look at the demographics, many of them are actually wage earners. Most of them are now in the middle-class, lower-middle-class income bracket ... which means they have food on the table.

"When you have to put food on the table, your mind can't wander outside that — food is all you can think about when you don't have any — but when you do, there are so many things you can think about. This is a challenge for the CPP."

Supporters of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017.
Supporters of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017.

Different concerns

Ou Virak noted that, for the first time in the nation's history, the majority of Cambodians — about 60 percent — were now wage earners rather than farmers, and had different concerns, including job creation and employment opportunities.

People inside the CPP seem aware that the Sunday stakes are high.

Municipal Governor Pa Socheatvong has recently touted a number of initiatives for urban beautification, including banning dogs from public parks, installing hundreds of closed-circuit television cameras and removing ATMs from some public places. Cambodians, however, took to social media to mock his seeming obsession with minutiae.

Last month, his idea to remove all automotive garages was blasted by none other than the prime minister's sister, Hun Sinath, who wrote on her Facebook page that the governor was "burning votes" with the initiative. Hun Sen also stepped in to block the governor's idea to improve traffic congestion in the capital by restricting car imports into Cambodia, writing on his Facebook page that he would not agree to the proposal.

Pa Socheatvong declined a request for comment.

Several voters interviewed this week, however, were less than complimentary about his initiatives.

Hok Chhayleng, 22, an engineering student, said he felt that leaders were not taking voters' problems seriously.

"We face difficulties like congestion on our roads that remains unsolved, but he chose to address other problems, like wiping out ATMs and chasing dogs in public parks," Hok Chhayleng said.

In his home commune of Teuk La'ak III, he said, local CPP officials were also unresponsive to constituents' needs: "They are unfriendly and unconcerned with our needs, and we often feel helpless."

The president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, arrives at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017.
The president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, arrives at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017.

'I am thinking of change'

Preap Nart, 24, a student who lives in the Stung Meanchey commune in southwest Phnom Penh, recalled the 2015 beating of opposition lawmakers by pro-government thugs and the use of state-employed district security guards to disperse demonstrations, often violently.

"These are unacceptable," he said. "Although this is just a commune election, I am thinking of change."

Still, the CPP's message is undoubtedly getting through to many. Khun Visal, 45, a stone carver, said he was proud that the city looked like a powerful and wealthy capital, with tall buildings springing up across the skyline. He credited the CPP for the changes.

"Development is moving forward step by step," said Khun Visal, "like this is an emerging country."

This report originated with VOA Cambodia.

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